The Cave Germ Revisited, in the Time of COVID-19

Jason Thistledown’s mama was tall and beautiful and strong; stronger of arm than many a man and more powerful of spirit than any two. Yet in the end it was not a man nor two nor even a gang of them, but a damn germ that killed her.

-From Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, Chapter Two: A Damn Germ

Usually when I talk about my novel Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, I talk about the pseudoscience of eugenics, and H.P. Lovecraft, and racism, and parasitism – because all of those things are front and centre in the book, and for much of its time in print they’ve been front and centre in the current discourse too.

Illustration for Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism” by Lawrence Nickle

There was not as much impetus to talk about the other element in the book – an element that arguably drives events to their conclusion as much as any of those other themes and elements, or for that matter, all of them combined.

The Cave Germ.

Introduced in Chapter Two – A Damn Germ, the germ hits the isolated Montana town of Cracked Wheel hard and fast. In a matter of days, it kills the mother of Jason Thistledown – one of the book’s two main characters – and does the same to almost everyone else in the little town. Jason’s status as a newly-minted orphan drives his decisions and development – and of course his fortunes – as the story moves him to far-off Eliada in northern Idaho. And although the isolated nature of Cracked Wheel limits its natural spread, the Cave Germ does get around.

In the novel, I don’t explain too much about what the Cave Germ might in fact be. The story takes place in 1911, when virology was still a relatively new science and viruses were known mainly by their effects. In terms of those effects, I treated the Cave Germ as a super-charged airborne Ebola-like strain with a near hundred-percent mortality rate, and a ferociously quick incubation period. It is as much a weapon as it is an affliction.

Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism

When Eutopia was first released, in 2011, it was just a few years after that other pandemic, the 2003 SARS outbreak, had hit my hometown of Toronto. I was covering that outbreak as a journalist, and although the threat of it was well-enough contained, its potential caught enough in my imagination that this far more deadly construction crept into the writing.

Eutopia’s back in print now, when my hometown and the world is hit by another SARS-type coronavirus – worse than that first one, but not quite as bad as the neutron-bomb of an outbreak that the invented Cave Germ virus would have caused.

But I have to say, had I sent the Cave Germ into the wider world than the events of Eutopia allowed, I’m not sure I would have been able to imagine the impact that this less deadly COVID-19 virus has had.

I might have imagined some of the denial and obstinance that’s emerged in the anti-masking movement – there was in fact some of that during the 1918 mis-named Spanish Flu pandemic – but I wouldn’t have guessed at the vehemence of it. I certainly wouldn’t have imagined a U.S. president leading it by example.

I did to an extent imagine the effects of isolation for those who were quarantining – Jason in that chapter spends weeks alone in his family cabin after having stowed his mother’s corpse, and he’s left damaged and vulnerable at it. But on a mass scale, as is happening to an entire planet?

In the first place, I wouldn’t have predicted that governments would have the wherewithal to order lockdowns on the scale that they had; I would have thought that self-isolation would be practised by the survivors and most people would be left to their own choices (as is in fact happening in much of the United States).

Earlier in the pandemic, I interviewed former gaming entrepreneur and restaurateur Jason Kapalka about his Storm Crow Manor chain of nerd-bars and how they were managing the shut-down – and what the future held in a world where everyone must turn away from one another.

Illustration for Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism by Lawrence Nickle

“The apocalypse we’ve got here is far less dramatic in terms of the Mad Max apocalypses. This is more of a glum apocalypse — everybody sitting inside playing Animal Crossing and just getting takeout from McDonald’s and Pizza Hut,” was his answer

That was months ago. And from that prediction of a “glum apocalypse,” I wouldn’t have predicted the premature attempt to return to normal – to beat that glumness back – with first bars and theatres, and a few weeks later, schools reopening in my hometown, when COVID-19 is still extant and there is neither vaccine nor treatment for it. I wouldn’t have understood our capacity to shrug off potential calamity, to deny the necessity of a glum apocalypse, in this uncertainty.

I wouldn’t have understood exactly how thoroughly uncertainty about what happens could cast its shadow over everything. I can’t remember a time when the near future was so very opaque.

As Eutopia comes out in its new Open Road Media edition, I am, honestly, struggling with new work because of the ever-changing transformation of our lives that COVID-19 is bringing about.

I think every writer of contemporary fiction is facing this question: what will the new world look like when the stories we write are published in a year or two? Will there be any commonality with the world we imagine as we sit down to write, and the shifting world in which our audience is sitting down to read?

We can guess as well as anyone. Likely that audience will have survived a second wave of the coronavirus. Hopefully, they will be vaccinated and healthy, or recovering after a proper round of proven treatments, and not still hiding out in quarantine or dangerously ignoring public health advice.

It’s likely that a great many will have less disposable income than they do now, as the concurrent economic collapse continues, and many will no longer have enough money to cover what we now think of as the basics of life without help from government that may or may not be there.

But that’s just my guess – and really, what do I know? Making it all up, as I did with the Cave Germ, I’m bound to get a lot of things wrong.

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