When fiction and reality collide, asking ‘What if?’ takes on a new meaning.
Read more from the lockdown letters here.
Sometimes I find myself thinking, “What if?” It’s the default setting if your job is writing fiction, this insistent “What if?”
Back in 2018 I began work on a novel. It was about a cruise ship. There had been a report about cruise ships arriving in Dunedin with norovirus on board. Around 200 passengers were receiving treatment each year in the city’s emergency facilities. But what if it wasn’t norovirus, but some new and fatal plague? What if no port would receive them? What if the ship were left to sail endlessly, its passengers turning feral in entrapment? It’s the perfect scenario for fiction, the classic closed-circle setting, the perfect metaphor for a planet adrift in the universe. I spent happy hours on research, reading travel blogs, interviewing a lovely man who worked as a singer on cruise ships, flying about the Pacific to perform Dean Martin numbers in a tux. So much luckier than a friend of his who worked as a Disney princess at theme parks around the world. The qualifications for that gig were a pure soprano and a body that would fit the same blue crinoline worn by all the other sopranos whose job involved endless repetitions of “a kingdom of isolation and it looks like I’m the queen. Let it go, go, go…”
Reality has eclipsed fiction, as it tends to in a crisis.
After the quakes too, fiction fell back. What was the point in Christchurch of imagining alternative realities, when surrounded by the appalling reality of life in a garage? And floods and business collapse and the deep dark stillness that fell for a time over the central city?
My novel had not considered that all the ports might already have the virus. It was all dark dystopian drama, a total lie.
Fiction may fall back, but the habit of “What if?” persists. It rises up at 2am. What if this is our Permian Extinction? For the creatures that existed here before us, it was their great size that made them invincible, before a meteor delivered an altered universe to some insignificant little mammals scrabbling about in the undergrowth. What if, with our chief strength, our dazzling brains, we’ve created our own ending?
We’ve been imagining it for millennia. The Apocalypse. The End Time, the dystopian futures of games and movies. There’s an excitement to it, and always the central fiction, that Great Lie, the sustaining myth, of survival. Not for everyone of course, but for the chosen few, for the solitary hero (it’s usually a hero) making his way through the wreckage of a backlit, sinister Eden.
But “What if?” my mind insists at 2am. What if there are not one, but two disasters? The earthquake we’ve been waiting for, the volcano under Auckland? Because one disaster does not preclude another. Or what if this virus mutates, becomes irresistible? Or is eclipsed by some other more appalling plague? I’ve read that interview with the New Zealand-born virologist Robert Webster, saying that this is not in fact the great pandemic he has predicted for years. For “we are at a global population density where such events are inevitable”. Covid-19 has killed just 4.6% of its victims. But Marburg killed 81%, bird flu killed 53%. What if Marburg made a comeback on a global scale? What if four million New Zealanders were to sicken and die, despite all our defences?
And then at 2am it all gets too big and I back away into the everyday fret that my daughter is working at the hospital without protective gear, no mask, no scrubs. They’ve been locked away by management for the projected spike.
I fret too at the world my four granddaughters are growing into.
I wish they could inhabit a world with species so prolific that their numbers cannot be counted on the fingers of two hands. I wish they could grow to venture out into the wide world. But I am also aware that our venturing had become absurd. Christchurch reconstructed itself under Brownlee on the basis of millions flying in, to holiday or attend conventions in the white elephant that is his legacy. Schoolkids have been hopping on planes as if they were buses to go on field trips to Pompeii, London and Nepal. Thirty years ago, my daughter’s field trip was to see the Artificial Insemination Unit at Massey, all the girls in their blue gingham and Peter Pan collars lined up around the pen to witness staff collecting semen from an overstimulated bull. Then on to the Ernest Adams factory to see the cream being piped into the lamingtons. That was more than enough excitement for one day.
It feels as if we’ve slammed into a wall at full throttle.
By day, I try to take pleasure in small things: a good coffee in the sun at 11am, a phone call with a friend, one of those funny clips people circulate: the dogs fighting over the rabbit, the breast slurping coffee, Hitler advising on social distance. All hilarious.
I say to my granddaughters, “You’re living through history, you know, like Anne Frank! You should keep diaries. You’ll remember this.”
The 10-year-old can spot a fake at 20 paces. She knows the elastoplast is going to sting when it’s pulled off. And the 12-year-old simply looks at me very straight. “I don’t want to live history,” she says.
Fair enough. At 2am, in this kingdom of isolation, neither do I.