In the summer of 2019, Mountain View author Simone de Muñoz began writing a science fiction thriller that became unexpectedly relevant by the time it hit bookstores on March 6.
"Manflu," de Muñoz's debut novel, is about a virus that is deadly to the male population. The book focuses on vaccine researcher Morgan Digby as she struggles to defeat the virus amid interoffice meddling, corporate conspiracy and forbidden romance. The book explores how society might change if women held the reins of political power and cultural change.
De Muñoz pointed to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" as a source of inspiration. She said she did a fair amount of research about viruses and pandemics to make the premise of "Manflu" as plausible as possible — not knowing at the time that she would be living through a global pandemic firsthand just months later.
De Muñoz said she watched the six-part Netflix docuseries "Pandemic," which premiered in January 2020, before COVID-19 was widespread in the U.S. She also consulted at length with one of her closest friends, pediatrician Dr. Veronica Lois, a Stanford Medical School graduate. They discussed how a virus that primarily affected men might work.
As she was working on her fictional book, COVID-19 hit.
"Spring of 2020 was an intense time for me," said de Muñoz, who is a wife, a mother of two young children and chief analyst for the nonprofit Community Services Agency of Mountain View, which provides food and shelter to those in need. "I was researching pandemics and writing about a pandemic while trying to keep my family safe and serving massive numbers of people newly in need."
Coming home from helping in the food pantry, de Muñoz would "sanitize absolutely everything."
"Like many people, my anxiety was through the roof," she said. "Even though the book related to a pandemic, writing it was therapeutic because writing is stress relief for me and provided a welcome distraction."
De Muñoz especially enjoyed fleshing out the character of Morgan Digby, her scientist protagonist, who doesn't always take the safest path through life. When Morgan has an affair with a younger man never exposed to the virus, she isn't prepared for the repercussions.
"She had to have flaws," de Muñoz said. "Some of the readers are outraged by her irresponsible behavior, but if you have a character who's doing everything perfectly, that's a pretty boring story. So I had to show that she was a bit of a dreamer and a bit distracted and flawed."
Set in the near future, "Manflu" depicts the possible consequences of the losing most of the planet's male population. The novel posits that climate change isn't as significant an issue after such an abrupt decline in population and associated greenhouse gases.
Also, wealth is distributed more fairly in de Muñoz's near-future.
"One of the things that comes up in the book is if there's less military spending, then we can repurpose that money for other policy priorities, like infrastructure or care-giving support," de Muñoz explained.
According to de Muñoz, who graduated from MIT in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in Economics and later worked at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., for two years conducting policy research before earning a master's in Public Policy, military spending in the U.S. is a huge amount of the budget.
"It's over 50% of discretionary spending. The interest on the national debt is a huge amount of the budget. So I think people may not realize that if those numbers are reduced, there's just a world of possibility in running the country in a different way."
Even though her book is about a pandemic, de Muñoz said "it's actually escapist. It's about imagining a different world. I think it's timely, while also having that quality of something a little bit fun. I'm hoping people will see it that way."