Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve read a fair bit of dystopian fiction, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (one of my very favorites of his novels.) Authors of dystopias are often doing what King calls “dancing on the grave of the world”: they’ve taken some existing problem — technology, tyranny, the environment, nuclear winter, or, in Station Eleven‘s case, the flu — and brought it to the end of times. But in the best of these novels, like The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, apocalypse takes on its original meaning in Greek: revelation. How can the end of the world open our eyes to what it means to be human?
In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel uses a nonlinear narrative to create a vivid picture of life after the Georgia Flu destroys 99.9% of the world’s population, and a strong sense of nostalgia for the world that has been lost. Twenty years after the disaster, the Traveling Symphony (motto: “Survival is Insufficient” from Star Trek: Voyager) goes from settlement to tiny settlement, playing Shakespeare and Beethoven; they break into homes looking for knives and canned food, yes, but also for poetry, musical instruments, tabloid magazines. In an airport, people who were stranded the day the flu began to erase the world’s population create a Museum of Civilization: on the shelves are Amex cards, exotic stiletto shoes, iPhones, iPads, laptops, a Nintendo console, a whole motorcycle.
Mandel plays with the back-and-forth between present and past to talk about what’s important to the human race. Survivors are desperate for stories: in a new era when strangers are suspect at best and lethal at worst, the Traveling Symphony is always welcome to town. A tiny circulating newspaper, telling stories from the flu era, is a prize. One character creates a comic (Station Eleven, in fact) in the pre-flu era that has prescient visions of the post-apocalyptic world, just as Shakespeare’s stories from his plague-ridden time are strangely relevant. But stories can also be dangerous: survivors discuss whether it’s best to tell children about what has been lost, lest it depress and disorient them. And a prophet, the leader of a cult, tells stories that could endanger anyone he comes into contact with.
I enjoyed reading this book just fine. It was very pretty: it was nicely written and structurally well put-together, and I liked some of the characters. But I have to confess to you that it bored me almost silly. This is not because I wanted it to be more gritty and violent (I read a complaint in one review that Mandel was naive about what would really happen in a post-apocalyptic world, and while this is probably so, she is welcome to imagine anything she likes.) It’s because of the unbelievably narrow worldview presented in the book.
Go back and look at what’s on the shelves at the Museum of Civilization. All the items are incredibly luxe, high-priced things. All the characters in the book except one are extremely wealthy — film stars and their (multiple) ex-wives, film producers, executives or those who work with them, artists, actors, musicians. The one character who isn’t wealthy is a paparazzo, hovering at the edge of that world. The nostalgia for what the world has lost is all for that rarefied world: air-conditioning, the light of television and computer screens, lights coming on with the flip of a switch, airplanes, concerts, arenas, plays.
What about any other world? There’s not a single character even from Canada or the US who comes from a lower-class background, who didn’t have some of these luxuries and is used to getting along without them, someone who doesn’t give a crap about Twitter. There’s one disabled character, and he commits suicide because it’s not “realistic” for him to survive. Oh, come on! What does that say about survival being insufficient? We have no sense of how the rest of the world is getting along: people who didn’t know when the lights went out because they didn’t have them anyway. These people not only have stories, they tell stories, they have an entire mythology worth listening to. What would be on the shelves of their museum? It’s not civilization if you only take the very top layer.
I agree with the motif of this book that survival is insufficient. I agree that stories are a vital part of this. But more stories, please. More, more, more.