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)

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Apocalypse vs. Dystopia: Some Definitions

This essay briefly discusses The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); The Children of Men (P.D. James; 1992); Oryx and Crake (Atwood; 2003) and The Year of the Flood (Atwood; 2009); The Gate to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988); Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm; 1976); Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). There are no spoilers beyond very brief summaries.

I have noticed that two sub-genres frequently get confused: the dystopian story and the post-apocalyptic story. While these two areas of future storytelling may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s define some terms, shall we?

We’ll begin with apocalypse. An apocalyptic story is one that depicts the end of modern human civilization as we know it, usually due to some cataclysmic event. A nuclear war, a meteor impacting the Earth, a zombie uprising, a 99-percent fatal epidemic — all of these things can usher in the apocalypse. A post-apocalyptic story concerns itself with what happens after that apocalyptic event, whether immediately following it or far, far in the future.

Often what happens is the rise of new societies. These societies may sometimes be dystopias. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopian society. Utopias are pretty much perfect, providing for the needs of all of their citizens. Dystopias, on the other hand, are usually oppressive, totalitarian, and violent.

Utopian and dystopian societies do not have to arise out of an apocalyptic event, however. 1984 and Brave New World are both classics of the dystopian sub-genre that do not contain an apocalypse. Or take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often mis-classified as post-apocalyptic. In that novel, a fundamentalist Christian group overthrows the current government and establishes a totalitarian society that enslaves women. Although environmental degradation has caused widespread infertility, no true apocalypse takes place. In fact, the primary point of view of the novel is of a future society looking back on this time in history.

From the movie version of The Children of Men.
From the movie version of The Children of Men; forced fertility testing is very dystopian.

Compare that with The Children of Men (or the movie based on it). In that case, although the apocalypse has not yet occurred, it is anticipated, because every person has lost the ability to reproduce and no children have been born in a generation. The novel could even be classified as pre-apocalyptic in that sense. This situation has directly created a dystopian government, which took power to enforce order on the growing chaos and anarchy occurring ahead of the apocalypse. So The Children of Men is an apocalyptic novel, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is not, even though the subject matter is similar.

atwood1
Apocalypse + dystopia taste great together.

Sometimes the dystopian society is the cause of the apocalyptic event. This is the case in Atwood’s companion novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The futuristic society she depicts is overwhelmingly consumerist, with a huge gap between rich and poor. One character takes it upon himself to engineer a virus to wipe out humankind and start all over again from scratch.

While I enjoy dystopian novels of all kinds, I am most interested in those dystopias that directly arise from an apocalyptic event. There are numerous examples of these, which may be why the two terms are so often confused. The Gate to Women’s Country is a dystopia masquerading as utopia, a common trope. After a devastating war, a society of walled cities based on ancient Greece arose. The cities are governed by women, while the men are forced to live outside the city walls as soldiers. Another good example is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, where the human survivors rely on cloning to reproduce. The cloned generations gradually change, losing their individuality and other essential human qualities, and oppressing anyone who differs from the norm.

Looks idyllic, doesn't it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.
Looks nice, doesn’t it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.

If it’s a true post-apocalyptic utopia you’re looking for, you might try Always Coming Home. Set in the far future California, it depicts an agrarian, idyllic society. Although they have access to technology — computer networks that survived the pre-apocalyptic civilization record their stories and occasionally provide information — they maintain an pre-Industrial Age way of life. Such an idealized lifestyle certainly seems unattainable without an apocalypse to first wipe the slate clean and allow us to start all over — and do it right this time.

First Impressions: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood; 2009) in October 2009. I will be discussing The Year of the Flood in future essays. Spoilers.

6080337This companion novel to Oryx and Crake relates from a different perspective the events of an engineered pandemic that wipes out humanity.

The Year of the Flood is not a sequel to Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, but rather a companion to it. It takes place at the same time and depicts the same events, with many of the same characters, but from a very different perspective. Atwood’s vision of our future is of a bleak, corporatized monoculture, where everything has been made into a commodity, and human emotions all but done away with. Guarded, gated corporate-states churn out useless genetically engineered animals and unnecessary drugs while the poor eke out an existence in the vast malls and slums of the “pleeblands.” Then, a bioengineered virus pretty much wipes out humanity overnight, leaving only a few survivors to relate the two tales. Eventually, the two storylines merge, shedding light on the abrupt end of Oryx and Crake. Although it is not strictly necessary, I believe it would help the reader understand The Year of the Flood after already having read Oryx and Crake.

The narrative alternates between the points of view of the two main characters, Toby and Ren. Each woman is telling her story post-apocalypse, first relating a little of how she managed to survive, then flashing back to the events of her life before the virus swept through. Both begin their stories as members of the anti-consumerist cult God’s Gardeners (which also appeared in Oryx and Crake), but each has to leave the group for different reasons, and their storylines separate. Each section, alternating Toby and Ren, begins with a sermon given by Adam One, the leader of God’s Gardeners, followed by a hymn commemorating one of the cult’s saint days (there is one for every day). These sermons let the reader know the fate of the group after Toby and Ren leaves and the apocalypse, which they call the “Waterless Flood,” occurs. Eventually, Toby’s and Ren’s stories catch up to the present and converge as the two separated characters come together again.

Toby and Ren are both victims of the commoditized, dysfunctional world they inhabit. They are each left without means of support after their fathers die in spectacularly unpleasant circumstances and they are abruptly on their own. They start out as victims: Toby of a psychotic rapist who continues to pursue her after her escape into God’s Gardeners; Ren of her mother’s capriciousness, until she winds up working in a sex club. After the Waterless Flood, they must each overcome their victimhood and become self-sufficient. They discover how to be themselves. In fact, the apocalypse might have been the best thing to ever happen to them, as it releases them from their societally imposed prisons.

The Year of the Flood ends much as Oryx and Crake did, with the focal characters encountering a mysterious group in the deserted forest. As in Oryx and Crake, the ending is very abrupt and a trifle unsatisfying, which leads me to believe that Atwood — although disavowing her role as a science fiction writer — is writing in the great tradition of the science fiction trilogy. If so, I eagerly await the last installment. (She was–the final installment is MaddAddam, published in 2013 and my least favorite of the trilogy.)

First Impressions: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood; 2003) in July 2008. I will be discussing Oryx and Crake in future essays. Spoilers.

51VLtCYOxKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In a dystopian exaggeration of current American society, an insane genius crafts a solution to the problem of humanity.

The premise of this novel, and the details of the future world it depicts, are so outlandish that you must either accept them immediately or stop reading. I accepted them. I was instantly subsumed in the fascinating, disturbing world that Atwood has created.

The novel opens in a post-apocalyptic shore-side wilderness where the only survivor (presumably), Snowman, is barely surviving. He sleeps in a tree and spends his days in a hallucinatory stupor. The only breaks in the monotony are visits from children who turn out to be genetically engineered post-humans, with glowing green eyes and the ability to eat leaves.

Gradually, Snowman — whose pre-apocalypse name is Jimmy — reveals the events leading up to the disaster as he remembers them. He grew up in a corporate compound separated by walls and guards from the “pleeblands,” where the poor lived in crowded, polluted slums. His father worked for a powerful company conducting research in genetic engineering to come up with new products designed to relieve food shortages, prolong life, and preserve beauty, resulting in such bizarre creations as the pigoon and the rakunk. As a teenager, Snowman befriends a brilliant but anti-social young man who calls himself Crake, whose genius enables him to attend a prestigious and luxurious university and then get a high-profile job conducting top-secret eugenics research. Crake brings his old friend into the compound where he works, and there Snowman learns that Crake has engineered a new race of people who don’t have many of the “problems” we do.

Also there is Oryx, the beautiful, victimized woman who both men love. Yes, this is a grand story about the downfall of the human race, but it is also the oldest story of all: a love triangle.

This book kept me fascinated and disturbed until the very end. There were so many outlandish details, but at the heart it explores some fundamental issues: the unchecked power of people wielding science, without regard for consequences; the calamitous effects of environmental abuse; the potential within us to destroy ourselves; the follies of playing god. The only criticism I have is that the ending is a bit unsatisfying. It just leaves us hanging. But overall, Atwood is a terrific writer exploring the science fiction themes of apocalypse and dystopia, and Oryx and Crakeis a terrific contribution to this genre.

First Impressions: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

These are my first impressions after reading Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm; 1976) in August 2008. I will be discussing Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in future essays. Spoilers.

51Pl9Fv9U8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In this post-apocalyptic novel, civilization has been destroyed by some unspecified means involving environmental degradation, pandemics, and famine. But one extended family, seeing the end coming, has used their wealth to isolate themselves in a well-protected valley and has constructed the hospital, labs, and mill they will need to survive. Short on food, they develop cloning techniques to produce more livestock. When they find that most of them have become infertile, they start cloning themselves as well, with unforeseen consequences.

The story is told in three parts, each following a similar arc, each ending in a main character leaving the family’s compound. In the first section, a brilliant doctor helps develop the cloning process but is ousted by his own younger clones, who are already exhibiting disturbing behaviors, such as losing their individual identities. In the second part, a clone is separated from her sister clones when she goes on an expedition to look for supplies in the ruined cities. As a result, she develops an individual personality and an artistic vision that the other clones interpret as madness when she returns to the compound. She must flee to keep from living a life as a drugged-up “breeder.” In the final section, her son is being raised by the clones but clearly doesn’t belong among them. Only he has the ingenuity and creativity necessary for continued survival as the machines and systems set up by the original survivalists begin to break down.

What I thought about as I read this book was recent news stories about children so micro-managed by their “helicopter” parents that they have no ability to cope with the real world and break down as soon as they get to college. The young clones in the story reminded me of younger generations so coddled that they cannot make a decision on their own. How can we survive and advance as a species when we lose our individuality and cannot think for ourselves? is the question.

This is exactly the dilemma faced by the clones. They become so used to a life where they never have to think for themselves that they lose all of their creativity and problem-solving abilities. They become dependent on machines they don’t understand, and when those break down, they cannot come up with creative ways to fix them. So they are doomed. Only those who can establish an individual identity through isolation from the main group are able to learn how to survive.

It may seem on the surface that this novel is a somewhat dated horror story about cloning. But look deeper–the story brings up issues that are very relevant today. Wilhelm is raising a warning flag that we should safeguard our individuality and nurture our creativity if we want to survive.

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.

First Impressions: Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

These are my first impressions after reading Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985) in October 2008. I will be discussing Always Coming Home in future essays. Spoilers.

Always_pbAt first, I didn’t think I would like this unusually structured book, but it very gradually and completely captured my imagination. It is a collection of writings–poems, songs, stories, and essays–about the life and culture of a group of people living in California far in the future, long after our own civilization has collapsed and been almost obliterated. It is not clear who has collected these writings, but it seems to be a character named Pandora, an emissary from our present time who is perhaps merely dreaming this utopian future society.

The Kesh, as these people are called, are in many ways very primitive, with a Native American-style culture that revolves around seasonal celebrations, growing crops, caring for livestock, hunting and gathering, and taking care of all the work of life. The Kesh’s society is the opposite of capitalism, in that wealth comes through giving things away, not owning them, and everyone shares in the village’s resources.

But the Kesh are not entirely primitive. Though all fossil fuels are gone, they have electricity (sun-, wind-, and water-powered, no doubt), as well as access to a network of computers–a network that extends around the globe and into outer space via unmanned probes and satellites–that store all of human history and knowledge. The Kesh just don’t seem interested in progressing past their idyllic state, and they refer to societies like ours as “people with their heads on backwards.”

Not that life is perfect for the Kesh. They suffer from a high rate of birth defects and early mortality due to radiation and chemical poisoning, leftovers from our defunct civilization, which keeps the population from growing too large. And their stories reveal that they suffer from human nature just like any of us.

One such story–the longest in the collection, almost a novel–presents a dystopian alternative to the Kesh. A warlike society called the Condor people come to the Valley where the Kesh live, and one of the soldiers marries a Kesh woman and fathers a daughter, Stone Telling. When she gets older, she chooses to accompany her father to his home. Her story is the only knowledge the Kesh have of how the Condor people live. They hold slaves, are ruled by a dictator, and worship a single powerful god. The women have no rights and are not allowed to leave their homes without completely covering themselves. They are obsessed with war and building war machines that they don’t have the fuel to power, at the expense of feeding their people. Eventually, Stone Telling escapes back to her own people, but we get the sense that the Condor people are well on the path to self-destruction.

It took me a while to get caught up in the stories of the Kesh. Stone Telling’s long memoir, broken into three parts and interspersed by other writings, helps anchor the book. I gradually found myself enchanted and fascinated by the Kesh as I learned more about them, especially their spiritual practices and the important ritual dances they hold at significant times of the year. Mostly, I admired their approach to life, without judgment or a strict moral code, respectful of both the individual and the whole, which includes the animals, plants, stones, earth, stars, everything.

I have lately felt overwhelmed by depressing world events, our materialistic culture and the problems we felt, particularly our environmental problems. This book offered both an escape and an alternative way of thinking about those problems.

Always Coming Home won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. It was nominated for National Book Award for Fiction, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.