We’ve probably all had the thought at some point: what if the world ended, and amid the wreckage many years later, what’s left of humanity or some alien explorer recovered not what’s most significant about our civilization, i.e. the Bible, Shakespeare, the theory of relativity, etc. they discovered an insipid birthday card, a Facebook comment made by you or some equally stupid thing and tried to use it to reconstruct the trend of human progress over the past several millennia?
Station Eleven is a novel sort of like this thought experiment. With the spread of a mutation of the flu from the Caucasus, 99.9% or so of humanity says good-bye. The internet, electricity and so on in no particular order wink out with little fuss after the initial impact. Human beings survive in a string of isolated settlements across the Great Lakes area. There might be others in the rest of the world, though we can’t be sure. In the age of the Ebola virus, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or AMC’s The Walking Dead, this is all readily recognisable, since it has long been easier to imagine the end of civilization than the particular social system we live under.
What’s different in Station Eleven is that there are no zombies, and unlike in most of the narratives, the end of the world produces no special barbarity or inhumanity (well, none that wasn’t already there.) After the initial catastrophe, people can establish settlements, although these are small, spread out, and have none of the accoutrements that we remember from towns. Our protagonist, Kirsten, travels between them as part of “The Traveling Symphony,” a group that goes between the towns of Ohio and Michigan performing music (classical and arrangements of the pop tunes that were around at the collapse) and theatre, mostly Shakespeare, as “people want to remember what was the best about before.”
The thing about this novel is that it’s not always so clear that high art such as the Bard’s works are what was best. At least, the members of the Symphony, Kirsten foremost among them, seem to find as much significance in more trivial things. One of the symphony’s wagons carries the painted motto “Survival is insufficient,” which Kirsten also has a tattoo of, and which is not a line from King Lear or Richard III but Star Trek: Voyager.
Similarly, her efforts at collection of artifacts from the old world center, not around the world’s great literary past, or even some kind of technology or science that might be remotely useful, but any celebrity gossip she can get from magazines or TV guides about Arthur Leander, an actor who died the night of the catastrophe and who she shares a dim personal connection with. In the “Museum of Civilization” set up in the airport of Severn City, Michigan, we find just as many stilleto heels as iPhones, as many baseball cards as laptops. All these have become equal as the remanants of a civilization that humans remember more and more dimly.
Detailing the lives of Kirsten and the rest of our ensemble would involve revealing too much about the connections they share before the collapse and develop afterwards, which drives the story. But in the end, the fact that they all find these connections significant, and that artists such as Kirsten struggle to produce from them the culture, the music and theatre that said the best things about humanity despite its dire straits, is a moving testament to that humanity, and our drive to live rather than merely survive. In the latter days of capitalism when ecological catastrophe threatens the fundamentals of all we have achieved, reading Mandel is a touching and marvelous experience.