Things we lost in the fire May 21, 2015Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: emily st. john mandel, station eleven
I’m normally a very fast reader, but it took me close to two weeks to finish Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, because I had to keep pausing and putting it aside. What it was saying was too overwhelming, too upsetting, and too much to carry. I loved it.
Station Eleven takes a fairly conventional disaster novel trope – a virulent disease wipes out the majority of the world’s population in a very short period of time – and carries it further, imagining how society might reshape itself after complete collapse. Unlike a lot of recent dystopian novels, Station Eleven actually explores what societal collapse, a dramatically reduced population and scarcity of resources would really look like. People’s capacity for violence – sometimes presented as innate and given free rein in dystopian frontier communities – is restricted in that bullets run out so guns become obsolete, let alone more technologically advanced weaponry. As such, violence takes on a more intimate quality: people carry knives, heavy stones, bows and arrows, and tattoo reminders of the murders they’ve committed onto their skin. The world darkens as sources of electricity and other power are shut off, and fuel supplies run out (or too few people survive to be able to extract and distribute petrol), so cars fall silent and the skies are emptied of planes. Within months, people’s worlds become restricted to the distances they can comfortably travel, enforcing a limited existence more akin to that of pre-industrial times.
If that’s not heavy enough, the novel jumps between several different chronologies, so that a strand of it deals with the period just before the outbreak, a second strand follows several characters through the immediate aftermath, and a third deals with the world twenty years on. The focal characters in this third chronology were alive before the collapse, some as small children, others as middle-aged adults, which allows St. John Mandel to devote a significant portion of the novel to exploring ideas of grief, loss, and the effect of memory and the passage of time. Is it better to grow up in a post-apocalyptic world with limited options, but to view this as normal, or better to have had fifty years of full, well-lived life in the twenty-first century, only to have this brutally ripped away and viewed as science fiction by the generations who come after you? Is it fair to teach children born after the outbreak about the old world, when they have no frame of reference for its trappings and will only be angered by the relative limits of their existence (the book mentions, in particular, reduced lifespans)? What is the purpose of preserving artifacts and memories? Who is it serving?
If all this sounds pretty grim, there are moments of light. The world that remains after the outbreak has burnt through it is harsh, but not deliberately brutal. St. John Mandel recognises, as few writers of dystopian fiction seem to, that humanity has survived for so long because human beings are adaptable, and because they cooperate and compromise in order to ensure their own safety and survival. People in Station Eleven adapt. They form scattered communities wherever they wind up when they can’t keep running from the outbreak, in disused shopping centres, in highway petrol stations, in airports surrounded by rusting aeroplanes. They teach their children. They memorise Shakespeare and ransack abandoned houses for musical instruments, and form a band of wandering actors and musicians. In moments particularly moving for me, they set up libraries, and interview whoever passes through their tiny communities, preserving people’s stories because there’s still a sense that history, that stories, that the people behind them matter. They build museums of obsolete artifacts of the old world: driver’s licenses and credit cards and iPhones with cracked screens, and angst about whether these memories are things that should be dwelt upon.
Ultimately, Station Eleven is a beautiful, moving love song to humanity. It imagines a terrifying future, and it shows us how to have the courage to endure it.