Good Minds Suggest—John Scalzi's Favorite Books About Epidemics

Posted by Goodreads on August 5, 2014
John Scalzi Outspoken and beloved, the award-winning writer John Scalzi is class president of the science fiction world. He regularly makes waves on his popular blog, Whatever (see his posts Being Poor, Your Creation Museum Report, and Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is); he likes to wield his influence for a good cause, such as advocating for better sexual harassment policies at fan conventions; and, oh yeah, he was actually president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for four years. Best known for the Old Man's War space opera series, including the recent The Human Division, Scalzi also pens stand-alones like Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts, which won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel and is soon to be a TV series on FX.

His latest science fiction work is Lock In, a thriller set in the near future after a global virus has left 1 percent of the world's population "locked in"—they are conscious and lucid but unable to move, so those with "Haden's syndrome" must rely on robots to interact in the real world or spend their time in the Agora, a virtual reality that caters to their needs. Put on your hazmat suit: Scalzi offers his favorite fiction about infectious diseases run amok.

The Stand by Stephen King (Goodreads Author)
"I read The Stand when I was still in elementary school, which meant I spent most of the sixth grade being paranoid about sneezing. King's book mixes epidemiology with quasi-mysticism, but what makes it important for me was that we saw the end of the world from the point of view of ordinary people. It wasn't a bloodless plague—it was happening to people like you."


Emergence by David R. Palmer
"A bionuclear attack wipes out nearly all of humanity, and the few people who are left are like our young heroine, Candy: smarter, fitter—and, in fact, almost a new species of human entirely. This 1981 novel speaks to nerds, who often secretly believe they have the skills and knowledge to survive the end of the world. But I liked it mostly because Candy is a vividly drawn character with an idiosyncratic voice—not in the least because the novel was written to approximate the now long-lost idiom of shorthand."


Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was by Barry Hughart
"Unlike other books on this list, the epidemic in this book is not worldwide; it affects only one long-ago Chinese village, and even then it affects only the children. To try to save the children, narrator Number Ten Ox recruits Master Li, a scholar 'with a slight flaw in his character,' and a literally fantastic adventure begins. The novel is beautifully and lightly written, features wonderful characters, and is one of my favorite books to reread."


Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
"This novel was a 1990 nominee for the Hugo Award, but for all that, I still think it's underrated, both for its world building, which rivals books like Dune, and for the complexity of its main character, Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier, in a genre that still gets its dings for how women are portrayed in it. Marjorie, who with her family is called to the distant planet of Grass to try to find a cure for a plague that is sweeping through several human worlds, is far from perfect—she's frequently irritable and full of doubt—but she doesn't need to be perfect; indeed, it's her imperfections that allow her to tackle the problem where others can't. I wish this book were read more."


World War Z by Max Brooks (Goodreads Author)
"A fine and famous book, but I remember it mostly because it killed a book deal of mine; I was contracted to write an oral history of the first interstellar war, and then WWZ, an oral history of the first ZOMBIE war, came out. I didn't want to write a book in the same format so soon after WWZ, so I dropped the project and several years later wrote an entirely different book and applied it to that outstanding contract. That book was Redshirts, which just happened to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. So thanks, Max Brooks!"



Vote for your own favorites on Listopia: Books for a Pandemic



Comments Showing 1-50 of 80 (80 new)


message 1: by Tanglebones (last edited Aug 06, 2014 01:53PM) (new)

Tanglebones Ooh! Good list. For my taste, I'd add Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl and Connie Willis's Doomsday Book.


message 2: by Cathie (new)

Cathie I would add Robert McCammon's Swan's Song.


message 3: by DeAnn (new)

DeAnn I would add the Andromida Strain by Michael Chricton, which scared the heck out of me as a teenager. Also, The Changeling Plague by Syne Mitchell is a FANTASTIC epidemic book that most people don't even know about, but it's a wonderful science fiction novel that used to have a place in the Science Fiction Museum here in Seattle because Paul Allen believed that patient Zero in the book was based on him, which it was.


message 4: by DeAnn (new)

DeAnn BTW, Bridge of Birds and Grass are kick arse novels, great reads even if they weren't about epidemics


message 5: by Tim (new)

Tim Hicks So glad to see Bridge of Birds getting some publicity. It's wonderful.


message 6: by Angie (new)

Angie Boyter Tanglebones wrote: "Ooh! Good list. For my taste, I'd add Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl and Connie Willis's Doomsday Book."
YES! How could you do a list of books about epidemics and leave out The Doomsday Book?


message 7: by Don (new)

Don Angie wrote: YES! How could you do a list of books about epidemics and leave out The ..."

Personally I could leave it out because I could not get over a society with time travel that didn't have cell phones and answering machines. Willis gets somewhat of a pass given when it was written, but by the time I read it they were part of the culture. So the significant amount of focus the book spends on people's inability to ever get ahold of each other challenged my disbelief."


message 8: by Tammy (new)

Tammy It's been so long - at least 20 years - since I've read The Stand and I can still recall the mild germophobia. I have not read Scalzi's books yet but one I would add to this list - nonfiction though - is The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. In this eye-opening account, Barry discusses the 1918 pandemic, leading into it with an overview of the advancement of the germ theory in the late 1800's as well as the state of practitioner education and licensing at the turn of the century. This, along with a thorough description of the influenza virus itself, its ability to replicate, and its penchant for mutating, really help underscore the vulnerabilities of any society - past, present, or future - to any such disease. The plight in some US cities was unimaginable. Even though The Great Influenza is nonfiction, our history with respect to pandemics can provide some good perspective and I felt it worth mentioning.


message 9: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Cathie wrote: "I would add Robert McCammon's Swan's Song."

One of my favorite books of all time!!


message 10: by Jerry (last edited Aug 06, 2014 06:53PM) (new)

Jerry H I realize that lists are both subjective and limited in size and those are great picks but let me add one while we have interested viewers. Written in 1949 and still in print (that must mean something), I would recommend Earth Abides by George Stewart.


message 11: by Angie (new)

Angie Boyter Don wrote: "Angie wrote: YES! How could you do a list of books about epidemics and leave out The ..."

Personally I could leave it out because I could not get over a society with time travel that didn't have c..."


One of the interesting and fun things to do with SF is to second-guess the authors and see what they missed that we think they SHOULD have predicted, a common example being personal computing of all sorts being almost universally missed by the talented writers of the Golden Age. I sympathise with your feeling, even though in this particular case I did not share it.


message 12: by Amy (last edited Aug 06, 2014 07:05PM) (new)

Amy Rogers I have an entire website devoted to science/medical thrillers, many of which include plague elements (ScienceThrillers.com). For hard-core plague stuff, I recommend Carla Buckley's THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE, an intimate story of a global flu pandemic told from the perspective of an Ohio family hunkered down in their home. Also THE WHITE PLAGUE by Frank Herbert (of DUNE), a remarkably prescient tale of a genetically engineered virus that kills only women.

(Or my own science thriller PETROPLAGUE, a disaster tale of a different kind of plague: oil-eating bacteria contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and turn all the gasoline into vinegar.)


message 13: by Julia (new)

Julia Always happy to see Emergence on a list of recommended books. Read it years ago, and bought up used copies that I found to give to friends to read as well. Wish it wasn't so hard to find now.


message 14: by Michael (new)

Michael Enjoyed all of the list. Read Emergence when it first came out, thought Candy was seriously cool. Number 10 Ox is also a favourite character. Just re read "The Stand" last year. Thought Grass was a very creepy novel, but enjoyed, as I do all of Sheri's books.


message 15: by Keith (new)

Keith Some wonderful sounding reads here. Read some but not all so will need to add them to my want to read list. I must say I really enjoyed Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake. Still haven't read the sequels yet though. Anyone else recommend them?


message 16: by Philip (new)

Philip Griffin Well, this is interesting. On this side of the Atlantic (UK) there's growing concern about the astonishing Ebola death-rate. But don't let it put you off a good read.


message 17: by library_jim (new)

library_jim Great list, of course!

One small edit: It just says Sheri S. Tepper, not Grass by Sheri S. Tepper


message 18: by Netpilot (new)

Netpilot The Dog Stars by Peter Heller


message 19: by Jim (new)

Jim Drury Mister Touch , by Malcom Bosse , 1991 . Unknown plague wipes out most people , leaving many with either breathing or vision problems , a group of survivorsliving in NYC who use NY slang for names (IRT was their leader) make a pilgrimage to the southwest , excellent . Recently , Fiend , Peter Stenson , the only survivors of a zombie plague are people on meth , you have to tweak to stay alive , darkly funny . Shovel Ready , by Adam Sterberg . Just finished The Girl With All The Gifts , tough and downbeat , from a point of view of a dangerous 8 year old semi-zombie . And just started Feed by Mira Grant , seems promising .


message 20: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Fabulous list! I will add some of my very favorites: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (about Plague in the 1600's - based on a true story), Moloka'i by Alan Brennert(about a young girl who contracts leprosy), Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson (non-fiction but a very readable story about cholera in 1800's London), The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (true story about ebola), and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (about Dr. Paul Farmer who addresses TB in Haiti in the poorest of communities and also expands his efforts worldwide). Read on, my friends!


message 21: by Michael (new)

Michael Wendy- thanks for this,-I thought that "Mountain Beyond Mountains" is one of the best books I have read-about a most remarkable man who is a modern day miracle worker. I still follow his posts and talks and support PFH.


message 22: by Geoff (new)

Geoff Whisler John Ringo: The New Centurions.


message 23: by Captain (new)

Captain Garrett Good list, The Stand was pretty good. Several of the others I will need to try. As for Lock-in, well it is the author that will keep me away. What one person calls outspoken another will call proselytism. I wish to be entertained not hear about their personal view of the world and society.


message 24: by Martin (new)

Martin Jerry wrote: "I realize that lists are both subjective and limited in size and those are great picks but let me add one while we have interested viewers. Written in 1949 and still in print (that must mean somet..."

Seconded. Probably one of the earliest examples of the epidemic apocalypse type novels, and and absolute classic. I read it a couple of years ago and would thoroughly recommend it.


message 25: by David (new)

David I liked Scalzi's selections. I read the Stand during medical school, and found it haunted me for weeks!
I would highly recommend The Passage by Justin Cronin. Cronin's a skilled writer; his descriptions come off like some of the best literature. His portrayal of the start of a "vampire plague" makes a horrifying epidemic--originally developed by military researchers to breed stronger, more resilient soldiers--small-scale enough to grasp. But he also gives a sense of the terrifying nature of a global epidemic. In particular, the escape of the original test subjects from a military compound does for me what The Stand did: I still get goose-bumps thinking about it!


message 26: by Pantelis (new)

Pantelis Oh Mr.Scalzi you disappointed me when you didn't mention the Infected series.It's a good example how disease books should be written. But anaway keep up the good work.


message 27: by Paul (new)

Paul Stella I'd suggest "Blood Music" by Greg Bear.


message 28: by Jerri (new)

Jerri Lyn Cathie wrote: "I would add Robert McCammon's Swan's Song."

I noticed it was missing too, until I remembered this is a list about epidemics, not post-apocalyptic.


message 29: by David (new)

David Paul wrote: "I'd suggest "Blood Music" by Greg Bear."
Great choice! Loved that book.


message 30: by Barb (new)

Barb Robert McCammon's Swan Song is one of the best books I've ever read. The first one that I finished, and immediately read again, and have read several times since. McCammon is a master.


message 31: by Katie (new)

Katie LOVE Sheri Tepper, excited to see another author recommend her. I might read his stuff just because, now! :)


message 32: by Larryhill (last edited Aug 07, 2014 10:15AM) (new)

Larryhill Tammy noted The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, which I agree is an excellent study of the pandemic in real life. To that I would add Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague, which in the mid-90's sounded the alarm about the emergence of new diseases at a time when most governments had become complacent and science thought it had all the necessary tools. Ebola, Marburg, Hanta, SARS and MERS have been contained (so far) thanks to the early-warning systems set up by the people in her book. Also, The Demon in the Freezer, by Richard Preston, is a vivid popularization of the war against smallpox - which we recently learned is anything but over.


message 33: by Alison (new)

Alison ThE Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. carey


message 34: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Alison wrote: "ThE Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. carey"

Yea, this is a fantastic take on the "zombie" plague genre. I finished it a week or two ago. The ending stuck with me for days.


message 35: by Rob (last edited Aug 07, 2014 04:50PM) (new)

Rob Reiter "Blood Music" for sure. But how about this oldie but goodie that was based on a real epidemic, "The Plague Years" by Daniel Defoe? I read it in 11th grade English and I don't think I've looked at a cart full of corpses the same way since...


message 36: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Sheffer Eifelheim by Michael Flynn


message 37: by Bambi (new)

Bambi Schwartz We are not talking about science fiction here so I don't know why The Hot Zone wasn't mentioned because it is about Ebola, where it came from etc. and that is what we are dealing with today. It is a truly interesting and easy to read book.


message 38: by Mallie (new)

Mallie Moore The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse is an absolute favorite book of mine. It is relatively recent and it really isn't that sci-fi but is phenomenal. It was written by a professor at Harvard and is written as a medical journal of the main character. It is very scientific, yet he keeps you reading till you're done!


message 39: by Linda (new)

Linda Here's a nonfiction book about a plague that really happened. The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History. Very well written. We don't think about it today but yellow fever wiped out thousands in the Southern U.S. People fled cities like New Orleans and Memphis in a panic. I visited a little town in Mississippi, Holly Springs, which has a monument to "The Yellow Fever Martyrs," the nuns and priest who died taking care of all the yellow fever victims in Holly Springs. It was scary time in America and nobody knew what caused it.


message 40: by Doubleod (new)

Doubleod Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham seems an obvious miss. I'd also include The Years of Rice & Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, an alternative history of the world if the Black Death had killed 99% of Europe's population rather than a third.


message 41: by Peg (new)

Peg Kay You forgot the Granddaddy! Camus' The Plague. I don't think there has ever been a better one written.


message 42: by Tony (new)

Tony Malone Don't forget John Christopher's prescient 'The Death of Grass' Absolute classic


message 43: by Dave (new)

Dave Don't leave out "the Band Played On" by Randy Shilts! Keep the Great NF titles coming!!!


message 44: by Adger (new)

Adger Williams Always good to see Sherri Tepper getting some attention. I'd forgotten that Emergence was about a plague; all I remembered was Candy and her distinctive voice. I'm reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis to my son right now, and it's still fabulous. He finds the business with phones (video, but not personal [yup, she guessed wrong, but interestingly]) very curious too, but not that much odder than the handbell choir ringing changes. (Both required some explanation.) Earth Abides is another under-rated great.


message 45: by Bobbi (new)

Bobbi Cathie wrote: "I would add Robert McCammon's Swan's Song."
First thing I thought of when I saw the article... "Where's Swansong?" lol


message 46: by Pam (new)

Pam Frank Herbert's The White Plague.


message 47: by Richard (new)

Richard Irwin "Under a Graveyard Sky" by John Ringo - one family's efforts to survive a zombie plague/apocalypse (approx. 98% population loss, & somebody did it intentionally!), & "light a candle in the darkness". This is a 4 book series, also showing lighting the candle/keeping civilization going.

Another one to add-"The Last Centurion", also by John Ringo. Bird flu that did what we were afraid it might have!


message 48: by Corey (new)

Corey Lorden Bambi wrote: "We are not talking about science fiction here so I don't know why The Hot Zone wasn't mentioned because it is about Ebola, where it came from etc. and that is what we are dealing with today. It is ..."

The fact that "The Hot Zone" isn't included on anyone's list is bizarre. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston


message 49: by Gillian (new)

Gillian Kendall The Garden of Darkness by Gillian Murray Kendall "Earth Abides," as mentioned, is classic. Jack London's "The Scarlet Plague" seems almost prescient about pandemics. Agree absolutely with "The Stand," which I read obsessively when younger. Hope it's not too much hubris to mention my own book, which is predicated on contagion, contagion, contagion. Great list, all.


message 50: by Geoff (new)

Geoff I am surprised no one mentioned Blindness.


« previous 1
back to top