Last March, tweets urging writers to refrain from writing about the pandemic were so common they became as tiresome as the phenomenon they hoped to head off. No one wants to read your quarantine fiction, they insisted. No one living through hard times wanted to read a book about those same hard times, and a looming glut of rushed lockdown stories was thought to be the next invisible threat. Certainly there will be bad fiction about the pandemic, if there isn’t already—but there’s bad fiction about everything. The more interesting question is: who will write the good fiction about it? Who will wrestle with the beast itself, and not just use it as window dressing?
It would be hard to nominate a more fitting writer than Jim Shepard, with his track record of unassuming but powerful work about the forces of history and the pressures they exert on the future. Nor is it surprising to hear—as the catalog copy is quick to point out—that he completed his new novel Phase Six before COVID-19 emerged. One lesson of the past year is that our pandemic was not at all a surprise to epidemiologists, public health officials, or those like Shepard who pay attention to their warnings.
Though the book is peppered with some references (presumably added in during editing) to our current pandemic as a historical event, instead Phase Six’s focus is about a near-future pandemic on a far worse scale. Shepard’s pathogen emerges from a rare metals mine in a thawing Greenland, and quickly lays waste to most of the eighty-person mining settlement, but not before hitching a ride on some of the mining crew flying out to Reykjavík and from there into several major European travel hubs.
The story centers on Aleq, a child and the lone survivor of the initial infection site, Jeannine and Danice, two CDC-dispatched epidemic investigators, and Val Landry, an ICU doctor in a quickly overwhelmed hospital. Jeannine is attempting to extract vital clues from the deeply damaged Aleq, while developing her friendship with Danice, who stays behind in Greenland to assist with the bedlam there.
But these aren’t the only places the narration ranges. As in Richard Powers’ The Overstory, the viewpoint can shift to an unexpected character, and can even detach from characters entirely to offer short passages on philosophy, history, and microbiology. That’s just one way this book recalls Powers’ recent opus; additionally Shepard’s writing is brainy, hyper-informed. The book’s acknowledgements boast a rough bibliography as long as a short story and offers thanks to a research assistant. But Shepard’s talent for science writing cuts the vast research down to size and draws the blood out of it.
Take this description of disease’s pathology that captures the technical without losing the visceral: “Necrosis and apoptosis were not the same things, but the similarity was in the way both created a situation in which everything was coming apart. Once the blood vessels started to disintegrate, the infected started to go into shock, and as the vessels hemorrhaged fluid, there was no longer enough blood pressure to get oxygen to the vital organs. The body was responding as if there was an invader and the invader was everywhere, and so it thought it was fighting its battle on every front, and ended up destroying itself.”
These infusions of informational writing bring the scope and impact of the pandemic into focus. They detail the initial spread of the pathogen among mine workers: “Everyone loved the snow crab and there was a lot of it so it was passed around. And in that way their shared fork became a fomite, from the Latin fomites, for tinder, or fire starter: an object that when contaminated with an infectious agent will transfer that agent to the new host.”
He’s not just interested in the pathology and epidemiology of a pandemic, but in the way it frays the social order. Shepard deftly shifts tone as he approaches the pandemic’s effects from different angles, becoming more conversational to capture the depth of social chaos in a time when “checking your Twitter feed took more courage than base-jumping” and the population is in the grip of “the inevitable second epidemic: panic.” When reliance on expertise is needed, for most people Shepard anticipates a flood of misinformation so tempting “reality […] was being abandoned the way you might walk away from farmland that had lost its water source.”
The clearest comparison to Phase Six is not another book, but Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion, which has been the go-to fictional work about pandemics since its release in 2011. Contagion has the larger sweep. Each thread of the narrative could be titled like the chapters of a textbook: the epidemiological response, the governmental response, the social response. It was incredibly predictive, only missing that a major political party would essentially take the side of the virus. Now, though, when terms like social distancing and viral reproductive rate have been circulating for the past year, when we’ve seen the misinformation and infighting ourselves, it can seem a bit academic.
Shepard’s novel may be more immune to that. Contagion highlights the damage a pandemic can do to human systems, while Phase Six highlights the damage a pandemic can do to human lives. With its smaller cast of characters, Phase Six is able to slow down enough to dig into their stories—the way lost loves can’t reclaim each other because what was broken still is, the way two women admit to each other they’ve never really had female friends, the way a boy loses the one adult who knows how to talk to him.
These stories don’t take place despite the pandemic or because of the pandemic; they simply happen within the pandemic, the characters scrambling to hang on to their emotional lives while the world crumbles around them. This makes the disasters that befall the characters all the more visceral. It’s too easy to imagine, after all the difficulties of the past year, the chaos that would come from a disease with double the mortality rate, let alone one forty times as deadly. Shepard brings that imagination to life with language as precise and forceful as a nail gun.In that way, Phase Six is a comfort-destroying masterpiece.
The question remains whether people will want to read speculations about the next pandemic as we finally drift out of the current one. Shepard certainly doesn’t predict that everyone will listen: “The COVID-19 pandemic had exposed the way America’s health care system, having been stripped to the bare bones to maximize profit, was uniquely ill-equipped to handle the dramatically added burdens of disaster. But as in so many instances in American politics, after the lesson had been learned nothing had been done about it.” That’s certainly not hard to believe.
Shepard’s exhaustive research bibliography can be seen as a chorus of Cassandras that he has now joined. And isn’t that our age: one of snowballing Cassandras, gaining numbers, gaining volume, but still ignored. Reading Phase Six is letting Shepard invite you to join the chorus. Who could be blamed after this year, after the past four years, for declining? But if there’s anything this book makes clear, it’s the costs of ignoring those voices. Phase Six is many things: a touching humanist portrait of those coping with disaster; a biting critique of chronically failing governments and institutions; and a compelling, if horrifying,biological thought experiment. In any other year it would be a brilliant accomplishment on its own. This year in particular, it may serve as our most potent warning to date.
By Jim Shepard
Published May 18th, 2021