Did Severance Predict the Coronavirus?
Analyzing the critically acclaimed 2018 dystopian novel by Ling Ma
Set in the early 2010s in a post-apocalyptical world, humankind falls prey to “Shen Fever” in Ling Ma’s Severance. In it, Candace Chen chronicles life in abandoned New York through an anonymous blog called NY Ghost. Before the end times, she worked a dead-end job in Manhattan producing gaudy Bibles. She narrates life with a few survivors headed to the elusive “Facility.” As a daughter of Chinese immigrants, she is obsessed with routine.
The transmittable disease originating from Southern China is cause for the human race’s obliteration. Shen Fever, a fungal infection causing flu-like symptoms, is a “disease of remembering.” The “fevered” are trapped in their memories, which cause them to replay their actions again and again, unaware that the malady is eating their bodies alive.
“Memories beget memories.” Their memories continue in an infinite loop; one can no longer distinguish between past and present. There are no bloodthirsty zombies involved in this dystopian nightmare, just a bunch of walking corpses who can’t seem to forget the past.
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With prolonged quarantine caused by the novel coronavirus, our days seem to overlap with each other. We’re stuck in a terrible episode of Black Mirror and, literally, can’t get out. (The sci-fi anthology series creator Charlie Brooker is actually halting possibilities of season six because the world is too bleak.) We grieve what was, remembering the good days when we could hold one another without fear.
The gravity of COVID-19 can be likened to the fictional Shen Fever as both caused global pandemics. Ling Ma writes, “The seriousness of the epidemic varied depending on which news source you trusted. Some claimed that the disease was experiencing exponential growth, others that it was spreading at a slower, more contained rate. Either Shen Fever was no bigger an issue than the West Nile Virus or it was on the level of the Black Plague.”
All eyes on governments who have denied the magnitude of this health crisis. Many leaders are culpable with deaths, which could have been avoided if they paid attention to early warnings from the World Health Organization. As of early May, there are more than four million cases of COVID-19 worldwide.
In the make-believe world of Severance, there is mention of protests amongst citizens: “The images of young, healthy protestors chanting, not wearing their masks so their voices could be heard more loudly, only seemed to enrage the public.” This viral image from the United States comes to mind. Citizens decry the lockdown for economic reasons, prompted by a president who likened the coronavirus to “the flu” and enabled those infected to continue working because it will “go away.” I wish this, too, were fiction, but it’s not.
The debut novel of Chinese-American novelist Ling Ma from 2018 is eerily similar to our present-day; I had to keep reminding myself this is a work of fiction. It’s both unnerving and astonishing. I keep returning to a quote by American novelist James Baldwin from The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” We are connected by what ails us; this is both a gift and a curse.
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Read Severance on Scribd for free.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver