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Coronavirus: Novel rejected for 'extremely unrealistic' portrayal of London in pandemic lockdown published 15 years later

Peter May's dystopian thriller rescued after being forgotten in Dropbox folder

Joe Sommerlad
Saturday 04 April 2020 12:08 BST
Journey through London's empty streets during coronavirus lockdown

A dystopian novel about a deadly pandemic wreaking havoc across the world that was rejected 15 years ago has finally been published after reality once more proved itself stranger than fiction.

Scottish author Peter May, 68, a former journalist and BBC screenwriter, wrote Lockdown in 2005, imagining London as the epicentre of a global outbreak, only to see his manuscript turned away by publishers, who deemed its subject matter “extremely unrealistic and unreasonable”.

“At the time I wrote the book, scientists were predicting that bird flu was going to be the next major world pandemic,” Mr May told CNN.

“It was a very, very scary thing and it was a real possibility, so I put a lot of research into it and came up with the idea, what if this pandemic began in London? What could happen if a city like that was completely locked down?”

His novel centres around a police detective investigating the murder of a child after their bones are discovered at the site of a makeshift hospital, an idea anticipating the opening of the NHS Nightingale at the capital’s ExCeL Centre this week.

“British editors at the time thought my portrayal of London under siege by the invisible enemy of H5N1 [bird flu] was unrealistic and could never happen – in spite of the fact that all my research showed that, really, it could,” the author told iNews.

Following the thriller’s dismissal, Mr May abandoned the project and eventually came to forget he had ever written it, until a fan contacted him on Twitter suggesting he write something for the age of the coronavirus, refreshing his memory and prompting him to retrieve the file from a Dropbox folder.

“I thought about it for a minute before I realised that I’ve kind of already done it,” he recalls. “I told my publisher about it and my editor just about fell out of his chair. He read the entire book overnight and the next morning he said, ‘This is brilliant. We need to publish this now.’”

The writer describes himself as “extremely creeped out” by how similar the current crisis is to his treatment.

“When I read it again for the first time since I wrote the book, I was shocked at just how spookily accurate it was,” he said. “The everyday details of how you get through life, the way the lockdown works, people being forbidden to leave their homes. It’s all scarily accurate.”

Lockdown, finally published by Quercus Books, is only available through Amazon UK on Kindle for now, but will be available as a paperback and audiobook from 30 April.

However, Mr May’s claim to be the first person to write about the current crisis is being challenged by another author, AM Smith, whose self-published e-book Muller in which “the human race is under attack from a deadly virus killing millions each day” dropped on Amazon last week.

Another novel about an apocalyptic epidemic, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, currently tops the site’s “Dystopian” chart, although the most famous work of fiction imagining such a scenario probably remains Stephen King’s The Stand, published in 1978.

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