Few science fiction writers have their vision of the future tested upon publication. But that’s what happened to Ilze Hugo
, whose novel about a mysterious epidemic, The Down Days
(Skybound Books, 2020), debuted in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“For it to be published right in the middle of all this is the most surreal experience,” Hugo says.
Many of the book’s details are spot on: masks, online funerals, elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes. But the South African writer is frustrated that she missed a few nuances like “the way that your glasses fog up when you're wearing a mask … or the fact that you get acne.”
“Something that you can't really understand until you’ve experienced it is how at the beginning of [the Covid-19 pandemic], everyone was taking it fairly seriously, and they were quarantining and self-isolating. Now if you go to the shop, you have people acting as if we're not in a pandemic at all. It's as if people can only emotionally stress about it or think about it for a certain period of time and then they go back to their lives.”
While contagious, the illness in The Down Days
is unusual: people laugh themselves to death. As surreal as this sounds, Hugo was inspired by a real event—the Tanganyika laughter epidemic
, which in 1962 reportedly affected nearly 1,000 individuals.
Although the story doesn’t explicitly mention the devastating—and ongoing—impact of apartheid, Hugo says it’s woven into the fabric of the story. “I think every single South African novel ever written is about apartheid in some way even though it doesn't necessarily mention it because it's such a fresh issue for us that we are all constantly aware of it. Just the way that the characters interact with each other and through small comments, it's always on the surface.”
Rob Wolf is the host of New Books in Science Fiction and the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape.