A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This essay also discusses Into the Forest (Jean Hegland; 1996); A Gift Upon the Shore (M.K. Wren; 1990); and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985), among various other stalwarts of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. There will be spoilers for these books.

Pop quiz, hotshot. It’s the apocalypse: What do you do? What. Do. You. Do?

If hundred (thousands?) of post-apocalyptic books and movies are to believed, you break out your cache of automatic weapons, gun down every guy you see, capture a woman and lock her in a cage for later, then chow down on some roasted baby.

There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on there. The apocalypse novel is one part fear, one part fantasy. All the rules are suddenly gone; you can do whatever you want! It’s a dim view of humanity that assumes that all people want to do is murder, rape, and eat human flesh. As if all that’s keeping us from murdering each other are electricity and laws.

This is a fantasy, though, because this is not what people do. Yes, people have done all those things; there are plenty of examples to point to. But as a general rule, people prefer to live together cooperatively. Thousands of years of human history backs me up on this. The whole of human history has been a progression away from wanton violence and brutality. In a disaster, our best natures tend to come out, more so than our worst. We help our neighbors; we don’t blow them away.

20170404Station Eleven presents a more realistic apocalypse than these earlier views. Of course there is violence, but violence is not the raison d’etre for the book. The terrible first years are elided entirely; we prefer not to talk about that. Instead, the post-apocalyptic sections focus on men and women coming together to survive, build community, and preserve what they feel is worthwhile. Sometimes they have to kill, but only when they have to. The only character in Station Eleven who hearkens back to the cliche of the every-man-for-himself apocalypse is the Prophet, and he’s clearly a deviant.

It’s hard to say whether this focus on community building and preservation is a feminine characteristic. Most of the violent, no-holds-barred apocalypses have been written by men and are inhabited mainly by male characters. (For some good examples, see Lucifer’s Hammer; The Postman; Swan Song; The Road). Contrast these with a few examples by women: A Gift Upon the Shore and Into the Forest. Each of these post-apocalyptic stories focuses on a pair of women and is more concerned with rebuilding–albeit on different terms–than tearing down.

Always_pbThere’s a catch, though: no boys allowed! When men enter these books, what do they do first? Rape, murder, subjugate their wives. This is also a kind of fantasy, a feminist fantasy. It can be hard to imagine a utopia as long as there are men around. An apocalyptic event is pretty much required if we want to create a truly egalitarian society. Always Coming Home  describes such a society, rebuilt on the ashes of our world, where men don’t know they are supposed to dominate women. Indeed, the people of Always Coming Home could be the far-future descendants of Into the Forest’s Eva and Nell.

I don’t want to live in a world where I’m likely to be raped, decapitated, and eaten while I’m out gathering my breakfast blueberries. But I don’t want to live in a world without any guys in it either, for all the obvious reasons. I like to think we are all in this together.

Station Eleven is different because it imagines what ordinary people might really do if most of the world’s population was suddenly wiped out. People are more likely to cooperate than to brutalize one another. People are more likely to live together than wander the wilderness alone. It’s a lot easier for a group of people to feed and shelter themselves. We know this already. A sudden disaster, no matter how calamitous, would not fundamentally change that. It would be literally insane to wantonly kill and rape the random people you meet who could quite possibly become your doctor, your engineer, your master gardener.

And that’s another way Station Eleven stands out: It rejects the notion that an apocalyptic event automatically leads to regression and barbarism. This is a trope so old it’s got whiskers, but yet writers keep writing it. After the apocalypse, not only will we all turn inexplicably violent, but we’ll also give up on everything we’ve created: all our scientific knowledge, our technology, our art, our progress.

51-fhlPUz4LEarth Abides by George R. Stewart is not as barbaric as most other apocalypses, but it’s just as pessimistic. It doesn’t take long–only a generation–for people to forget how to grow food, live in houses, read! And they like it better that way. In A Gift Upon the Shore, Mary and Rachel make it their mission to preserve books–and thus all the human knowledge–for later generations. They wrap up the books and lock them away, but they don’t use them. Into the Forest goes one step farther: burn the books. The two sisters turn their backs on technology and civilization, and return to nature. Always Coming Home is the utopian outcome of where Into the Forest begins, a far-future nature-based society that has almost completely rejected technology, with barely a memory of what came before.

Again, this makes no sense. In a survival situation, why would we give up any advantages we had? We wouldn’t bury or burn our books; we’d read them. We wouldn’t throw away our technology; we’d try to use it any way we could. Station Eleven is a more hopeful book than either Into the Forest or A Gift Upon the Shore. The survivors build their villages in truck stops and airports, which makes sense in terms of access to resources. They struggle against a return to barbarity, which comes closer to the truth of human experience, a long struggle to lift ourselves up. They preserve music and theater; they make a museum of the remnants of the technological age.

While other apocalypses revel in the dark underbelly of human nature, they forget our universal characteristics. People have always felt driven to discover what we don’t know and to create art. We yearn for a connection to our past, our ancestors, and to preserve our memories. No matter what our species has gone through, we’ve never stopped doing these things. Station Eleven not only shows post-apocalyptic survivors doing these things, but it declares that these are the only things worth doing. Survival is insufficient, after all.

Station Eleven comic, drawn by Nathan Burton. (Source: Flavorwire)
Station Eleven comic, drawn by Nathan Burton. (Source: Flavorwire)

In Station Eleven, Shakespeare lives on. A traveling orchestra risks their lives to play music for others. And the loss of a comic book is a profound tragedy. Station Eleven takes place in the past as much as in the future because we live in both. If there were an apocalypse, and there were survivors, the link to the past would not break. While most post-apocalyptic books are about losing our humanity, Station Eleven is about reinforcing what makes us human.

We traveled so far and your friendship meant everything. It was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty. Everything ends. I am not afraid. — Station Eleven

For further reading (leaving the blog): My first impressions of Station ElevenIt’s the end of the world as she knows it (NewYork Times Book Review)

First Impressions: A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren

These are my first impressions after reading A Gift Upon the Shore (M. K. Wren; 1990) in December 2009. I will be discussing A Gift Upon the Shore in future essays. Spoilers.

51I0kCCMzgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Gift Upon the Shore is a post-apocalyptic novel, set in the years following the utter destruction of human civilization. in a farmhouse on the Oregon coast, a small community has survived. But the age-old power struggle between knowledge and religion is still going on.

The novel opens with the narrator, Mary Hope, describing her life as an old woman 40 years after humanity has destroyed itself. She lives on a seaside farm with a small group of survivors: a couple of older women, like herself; the first post-apocalypse generation, who lead the community; and their children. This is a literalist Christian group, although Mary doesn’t participate in their services. She is the children’s teacher, an arrangement she made with the group’s patriarchal leader, Jeremiah, in exchange for allowing his flock to live on the farm.

Mary decides to take one of the young men, Stephen, as her apprentice. She tells him the story of the apocalypse and what happened in the years following, and is writing the story down for him to have. The novel thus alternates between Mary’s first-person account in the present and her third-person chronicle of the recent past.

The young Mary came to the farm just as the world was disintegrating into chaos. Her bus was attacked by a band of “Rovers,” and Mary was rescued by Rachel Morrow, an artist who lived alone on the farm with a menagerie of animals. The two women foresaw disaster coming when their neighbors were brutally murdered and so stocked up for survival. Then the end came: nuclear war plus a raging epidemic wiped out nearly everyone.

Rachel and Mary eked out a subsistence for years, never finding another survivor. They had a purpose, though: to preserve the thousands of books they have salvaged for any future generations. They planned to seal the books up until printing was re-invented and future people had the means to reproduce them.

Then a man wandered down their beach, very sick and near collapse. The two women nursed him back to health. He explained that he came from a small Christian community not far away, which anticipated Armageddon, as they called it, and thus was prepared to survive. Although it was clear that their beliefs about God and the place of women were very different, Mary decided to marry Luke, as she believed it was her responsibility to have children, if she could. She moved to the compound for several months, but left when their leader and doctor refused to give a gravely wounded Rachel any medical help because he believed her to be a witch. It is Rachel’s history and beliefs that Mary particularly wants to chronicle for Stephen to teach the future generations.

In the present, Mary has taken in the remnants of the religious group, after Luke and the others died of illness. But Miriam, Jeremiah’s sister and co-leader in all but title, is suspicious of Mary’s teachings and tries to discredit her any way she can. Mary soon begins to suspect that Miriam might be planning to murder her or destroy the books Rachel worked so hard to preserve.

Clearly, this is a novel about women: their strengths, their weaknesses, their relationships with one another. The male characters are much less defined, and serve either as foes or as uneducated vessels, who need the wisdom of the women. By contrast, Rachel, Mary, and Miriam are strong and resourceful enough to survive the worst hardships, yet remain focused on what they perceive their responsibilities to the all-but-decimated human race to be. Each woman in concerned with preservation — of culture, of education of the young, of souls — and will do whatever they feel they have to, even sacrifice themselves, to remain true to their purpose.

The story drives forward suspensefully, switching back and forth in time until the past catches up with the present. The main flaw is that it is presented too straightforwardly. The religious group, represented by the clearly power-mad Miriam and the ineffectual Jeremiah, seems to offer nothing of value, while Rachel and Mary are presented as singlehandedly responsible for preserving the culture of mankind. I would have preferred more nuance, more shades of gray, some alternative points of view. The author’s tendency to sledgehammer her point comes out in other ways, such as the overkill apocalypse, which really could legitimately be mistaken for Armageddon by heaping plague and earthquakes on top of nuclear annihilation.

Despite these flaws, A Gift Upon the Shore is both poetic and exciting, and it is a convincing portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future. It is a worthwhile addition to the sub-genre.