Side Effects

by Emma Newman

An unexpected side-effect of living through a pandemic

I debated whether it was too soon to write anything about Covid-19, because for heaven’s sake, surely none of us ever want to hear that word or think about it ever again. But I feel compelled to explore what the last eighteen months have made me think about in relation to the Wild Cards universe, and how it’s influenced my reading of stories set within it.

A fear previously imagined, now made real

One of things I have felt most over the past two years is fear. Fear of catching a virus that could kill either myself or my loved ones. Fear of governments mishandling the crisis and leading to more deaths. Fear that the global supply chain will not recover quickly enough and that suffering and death due to economic collapse could compound things even more.

What I didn’t expect the Covid-19 pandemic to do was make me think differently about the Wild Cards universe. For me, before living through a pandemic, the Wild Cards virus was just a thing that happened in the history of the shared universe I write in, the global inciting incident as it were. The character I write, Stonemaiden, was born decades after the Wild Cards virus was unleashed upon the world. The shock of that, the sheer wrenching experience of living through the change from a world before the Wild Cards virus to one after it was unleashed is not part of her personal history, but instead that of her grandparents – who died when she was young. The impact of Mad Cow disease is the most recent national trauma she has lived through and been directly affected by, and like her, I never really thought about what living through the early years of the Wild Cards virus might be.

I have taken to thinking of February 2020 as the last month of the ‘Before Times’ and as a result, I wonder if the people who lived through the unleashing of the Wild Cards virus would do the same. However, I feel I have the luxury of being able to see ‘The Great After’ happening in my lifetime, unlike those in the Wild Cards universe. 

Even as I write this, I worry about whether it is okay to relate what we’re collectively living through now to a fictional virus. We’ve lost – and are still losing – loved ones. We’re still affected by the knock-on effects of lockdowns and the impact of the supply chain crisis is still playing out. We’re still living through this collective trauma. But I’m going to carry on, because if there’s one thing i know for sure: writing, and the exploration of fictional narratives, help us to process lived experiences.

In May 2020, I re-read the first story in Knaves Over Queens in which Flint’s origin story is explored. And you know what? It was terrifying. Reading about the awful things that happen to people as the virus rips through the ship’s passengers and crew resonated with the fear of Covid-19 and the bizarre stress of living under lockdown. The impact of the Wild Cards virus is more dramatic, more visible, of course, but surely the core fears for anyone living in the Wild Cards universe are the same; What if a loved one catches this? What if it kills them? What if I catch it? What if it changes our lives forever?

It gave me a deeper appreciation of how frightening the unleashing of the Wild Cards virus would be – not just for the aces and jokers – but for everyone. The sense of powerlessness, the fear, and then the ongoing repercussions of suddenly having people with superpowers in the world. 

The accompanying horror of misinformation

Of course, the internet didn’t exist when the Wild Cards virus was unleashed. After surviving the last eighteen months, my reaction to that is ‘thank goodness!’ As a writer and fan of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and a keen reader of history, I’ve been expecting a global pandemic for the past ten years (the only thing I wasn’t sure of was the form it would take). However, ten years ago I really did not think that the internet – and more specifically social media – would have the potential to do so much damage during a pandemic. 

I am certain that, eventually, Covid-19 will genuinely be something we just live with. I don’t think we’re there yet, despite the pressure to believe so, but at some point in the future it will not be as genuinely frightening as it has been over the last eighteen months. But this too, has made me see the Wild Cards universe in a new light. Nobody has that luxury in this fictional setting. The Wild Cards virus continues to be unpredictable in who it affects, how it affects them, and who it kills. That fear of catching it and either being killed or changed forever by it is still there. 

That being said, the scale and implications of a sizeable percentage of the population suffering from long-covid is still unknown. I guess that’s going to be our version of the longevity of this real world virus we’re contending with. 

Nobody who really understands the severity and novelty of Covid-19 wants to catch it, but I bet there are people who hope they’ll succumb to the Wild Cards virus and become an ace. Heavens, given the absolute garbage I’ve seen flying around on social media during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are probably people making money off giving people advice on how to catch the Wild Cards virus and guarantee that they’ll become an ace as a result. 

But would they, if they really thought about it? After all, isn’t that one of things we explore the most in our stories; how having superpowers can actually be really stressful, traumatic and damaging to our lives, even if it does mean we can be superheroes and even have fame and fortune as a result?

Given the way I’ve balanced risk, and sacrificed so much time with the people I love to keep as many people as possible safe during the Covid-19 pandemic, I suspect I wouldn’t be one of those people hoping to become an ace. I much prefer the hope of being able to visit my grandmother and my father and hug them again over the hope for superpowers. And that is one of the few things I am grateful for in this real-world pandemic; we have vaccines, we have improving treatments and genuine hope (if we are fortunate to live in a wealthy country). That is something that no-one has in the Wild Cards universe, super-powers or not.