We live in pretty scary times. COVID-19 has spread across the world, unsettling the daily lives of millions of people. At the same time, many readers have turned to, well, reading more, maybe due to being stuck at home. Oddly enough, many fiction fans have also started to search for the best pandemic books to read.
Actually, maybe it’s not that strange. After all, fiction has always been a welcomed form of escapism. So I think picking up a few books about pandemics is just our means of imaginatively coping with our real-world worries.
Whatever the case, here are a few of the best pandemic books I’ve read over the years. Enjoy!
My list of best pandemic books (fiction)
1. The Andromeda Strain
A classic in the genre, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain combines horror with sci-fi in this smart pandemic thriller.
The story begins with five prominent biophysicists. They warn the US government about the possibility of space probes bringing back unknown organisms that may pose a threat to humanity.
Sure enough, two years later, a probe crashes into Earth, landing in a desolate part of Arizona. It isn’t long before inhabitants in a nearby town are found dead, their faces frozen in terror.
The Andromeda Strain was Crichton’s first book – and, in my opinion, one of the best pandemic books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It’s been made into a movie and also a miniseries. However, I still find the book to be superior.
I’d describe this award-winning book as a clever hybrid of coming-of-age drama, satire, and pandemic fiction.
The plot follows Candace Chen, a young woman tied to the routine of her job. So much so she barely flinches as a biblical-sized plague cripples the whole of New York and beyond. Businesses start to shut down, transport halts, and Candace’s own company is reduced to a tiny skeleton crew.
Even as an introvert, Candace soon realizes that she’ll need to learn how to work with others in order to survive a dangerous journey to the Facility.
In my opinion, I don’t think Severance will sit well with readers looking for a straight-up thriller. The book is fairly slow paced, punctuated by artsy style prose.
However, I feel Ling Ma’s novel truly shines as a commentary on human nostalgia, and our difficulties in letting our pasts go. There’s also a bit of Woody Allen-esque humour involved.
Not all books about pandemics involve coughs or fevers. In Blindness, author Jose Saramago weaves a devastating tale about the alarming spread of ‘white blindness’ – an infection that causes its victims to go blind in a sea of light.
I loved the way the book imagines how such a pandemic could strip society down to its most visceral – and horrifying – elements. Saramago’s main characters are mostly quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital, where other victims dwell. This setting acts as a microcosm of sorts as people start turning on each other, acting more and more like savages.
Blindness was adapted into a movie starring Julianne Moore, which I also found enjoyable.
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Also check out: 8 thrilling books for zombie apocalypse fans!
4. Lock In (series)
I think this one hits quite close to home – but with a crucial twist. A global pandemic is spreading across the globe. In most cases, people show mild flu-like symptoms and fever. However, for the unlucky one percent of the infected, they become ‘locked in’, still fully conscious yet unable to move their bodies or respond to stimuli.
This plot then moves into both dramatic sci-fi and murder mystery territories. We meet Chris Shane and Leslie Vann – two FBI agents assigned to solve a tricky murder case. However, as the threads unravel, they soon discover the secrets of a virtual world inhabited by the minds of the ‘locked in’.
In short, it’s pretty out-there stuff. However, for me, I was… locked in to finishing this series! Lock In is easily one of the most creative and best pandemic books I’ve read, mostly for its willingness to go with unexpected plot twists.
5. The Extinction Files (series)
I think fans of science-based action thrillers will thoroughly enjoy The Extinction Files. Beginning with Pandemic, the series begins with a discovery of a sunken submarine. Inside is what appears to be a secret laboratory where a deadly experiment has gone awry.
We then switch over to the dual perspectives of Dr. Peyton Shaw – a scientist – and Desmond Hughes, who wakes up with no memory of what happened to him. Worse, he finds a dead security guard next to him! The two cross paths and, together, must race to discover the true origins of a virus outbreak that threatens to render humanity extinct.
I think anyone remotely into conspiracy theories will have a lot of fun with this critically-acclaimed series. In addition, there’s plenty of action scenes and plot twists, with solid and relatable characters. In short, The Extinction Files offers some of the best pandemic books to lose yourself in.
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6. Station Eleven
A catastrophic Georgian Flu ravages all regions of the world – and within two weeks, most of humanity is dead.
Fast forward twenty years. We follow Kirsten Raymonde – a survivor – who travels between small sentiments with a band of actors and musicians. Their goal? To keep the beauty of human art alive amid a struggling world distraught with misery.
However, things take a dark turn when Kirsten and her friends meet a violent prophet who wishes to wipe them out. The book then moves between the past and present timelines, slowly stitching together the events that entwines all the characters together.
I think Station Eleven is unlikely to appeal to those who like their books quick and heavy on action. That’s not the kind of read it tries to be. However, this is probably one of the best pandemic books suited for readers keen on a slower, more self-reflective pace.
Overall, a lot of the plot focuses on how people would realistically adapt in a post-apocalyptic world, where technology is far behind them. It also examines many ‘what if’ scenarios – in particular, what would happen when much of what we hold dear today ceases to matter in the grand scheme of things.
In short, I was fully engaged with Station Eleven‘s varied pace from most other pandemic books. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. However, there will be many who derive good existential value from it like I did.
7. The Eyes of Darkness
Yikes! Talk about being an unwitting prophet! Published in 1981, Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness includes a section where a deadly virus named Wuhan-400 is revealed to have been unleashed upon the world. The virus causes severe “pneumonia-like illness” that completely cripples the lungs and bronchial tubes, and resists all forms of treatment.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Now, obviously, I don’t believe Koontz is a prophet. However, he’s always known how to craft great page-turning thrillers (amid the duds). The Eyes of Darkness is no different. The plot actually centers on Tiny Evans, who is frantically trying to search for her son whom she thought was dead.
I’ll be honest. Koontz’ novel isn’t really as centered on virus outbreaks compared to other books about pandemics on this list. Nonetheless, the strange coincidence I mentioned above has recently pushed this old thriller back into the limelight. Just read the book’s recent Amazon reviews and you’ll see what I mean!
I for one thoroughly loved it – and you probably will too!
8. The Stand
Widely seen as Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Stand is a sprawling epic about good vs evil amid a global pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population.
I think the book can essentially be broken down into two phases. The first covers how a patient escapes from a facility, carrying a super-flu virus that quickly spreads and kills 99 percent of everyone. This gripping section alone makes The Stand arguably one of the best pandemic books around.
However, things escalate even further in the second section, which marks a shift into the supernatural. You’ll follow various groups of survivors as they set out on a journey to find a mythical figure who appears in their dreams. In addition, an epic battle brews, as these people soon discover a lurking enemy who wants nothing more than to see them dead.
I think The Stand, while very lengthy, is a celebration of King at his writing peak. His world-building prowess is in top form here, and the intertwining stories of all his characters is a marvel to behold.
In short, this is a must-read if you’re currently stuck in quarantine and are looking for long books about pandemics to lose yourself in.
Also check out: the best Stephen King books to read for absolute beginners!
9. The Plague
Despite being an old book, The Plague has somehow re-emerged as a bestseller on Amazon in recent days. I guess people really are in the mood to read books about pandemics?
Regardless, I read this novel several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. The story is set in the North African town of Oran, where a terrifying plague condemns scores of people to a rapid and horrifying death.
Everyone is forced into quarantine, as individuals react in different ways to the strict isolation. Some go stir crazy, others turn angry. However, a few main characters – like Dr. Rieux – push on to find a way to survive an outbreak that has brought a society to its knees.
I adore the tonality of The Plague. At its heart, the book is about human resilience, and the ability of some to look danger in the eye and strive on. While fiction, I find this to be truly inspiring stuff that, in many ways, echoes the bravery of our real-life frontline heroes.
In addition, the entire novel brims with incredible dialogue, engaging characters, and a poetic sensitivity to the human condition. This is a true classic that has made many readers’ all-time favorites lists. It’s on mine for sure!
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Other books about pandemics worth reading
10. A Beginning at the End
A Beginning at the End, as the title suggests, is mostly about how people are trying to rebuild their lives after a global pandemic. For me, the book is ultimately about our powerful abilities to adapt – and also, our need to move on from the past.
11. The Dreamers
This is a pandemic novel with a twist. The Dreamers follows young student Mei whose life is turned upside down when an odd illness spreads, putting its victims into an endless sleep.
I loved the book for its tight focus on a small town living in fear and peril. This helps to keep the narrative both intimate and engaging. In addition, it also explores the nature of dreams, which is a nice plot element.
12. A Song for a New Day
What would happen if a pandemic sweeps the world – and large public gatherings and music concerts are made illegal?
Oh, wait, I think that’s kinda already happening.
I liked how A Song for a New Day explores the idea of virtual reality concerts, and how musicians grapple with adjusting their livelihoods. In short, the book runs parallel to what’s happening in the real-world, wrapped in wonderfully written fiction.
13. Wilder Girls
Think feminist Lord of the Flies, throw in a crippling pandemic, and you’ve got the gist of Wilder Girls. This excellent novel centers on a boarding school that goes into lockdown as a dangerous infection spreads and kills.
I think the book falls somewhere between drama and mystery, as you follow three best friends who seek answers to what’s really going on.
14. Pale Horse, Pale Rider
This collection of short stories by Katherine Anne Porter is worth reading in its own right. However, the last story – which this book is named after – is especially relevant for anyone keen on more books about pandemics.
With stunning skill, Porter transports you back to the time of the Spanish flu epidemic as she paints a poignant picture of human suffering and endurance. Interestingly, the author herself almost lost her life to the flu – so you can rest assured she writes from first-hand experience.
15. The MaddAddam Trilogy (series)
I can’t say too much about the story of this series, lest I spoil it for you. However, in short, if you’re itching for a plague-themed sci-fi masterpiece that’s exceedingly well-written, this is it.
You’ll travel with Snowman – who assumes himself to be the lone human survivor in a world filled with ‘superior’ aliens. At the heart of it all is a love story that truly takes you through emotional peaks and valleys, caressed by some of the most elegant prose I’ve read in recent times. Brilliant!
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