Tag Archives: apocolypse

Station Eleven: Why are you having a baby when the world is ending?

I’ve wanted a baby since my lady bits started twitching in my late twenties. I’ve been asked – and had trouble replying – why I want a baby. It’s a good question, and one we (collective humanity we and my partner-and-me-we) should probably be able to answer before we go ahead and have one. Enter me reading Emily St John Mandel’s (excellent) Station Eleven and feeling ever more sure that the world as we know it is ending, and that having a baby is… [enter your adjective]: risky, selfish, hopeful, terrifying, absurd, brave. Sure, when I was born in the 80s my parents must have felt a similar sense of foreboding: the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation probably made it feel pretty scary to have a kid. And without the same frame of reference, I can’t be sure, except the arrival of disasters brought on by global warming makes the ‘threat’ not a possibility, but a reality.

So what does my baby-end-of-the-world-angst have to do with Station Eleven? The book narrates the post-apocolyptic world of a mix-matched cast of characters for whom the mantra “Survival is Insufficient” prompts them to not just survive, but to make and appreciate art, to maintain friendships and romances, and to form complicated relationships with ideas of past and future. It also gave this reader the scope and space to consider the [enter your adjective] of being a parent in any world, the massive responsibility and the abnegation of self called for by culture and circumstance (am I more or less likely to have a baby now? Time will tell).

With characters scattered in time and geography, the novel moves back and forward as readers are invited to piece together the events surrounding the collapse and the journies and connections of different characters (much, I might add, as one of these characters might be positioned to try to make sense of their world). We witness a magnificiently drawn setting of winter Toronto (really, not since the mostly wretched The Night Circus have I enjoyed a setting quite so much) and scenes along the north-east seaboard of North America (less brilliant than that of Toronto). Our characters are a little uneven in how successfully they’re drawn, but for the most part their motivations are well grounded in past events and rich personalities. (I would add that the narration of the lives of these characters ‘before’ the collapse is excellent – our knowledge of the imminanent end to their existence through the juxtaposition of their present adds urgency and poignancy to already great narration).

The past is captured in the creation and curation of the “Museum of Civilization” – an effort on the part of a few characters to preserve the history of the world that was lost, and to teach future generations about the cultures destroyed through their objects. The Museum is contrasted with characters who have ‘lost’ memories of the first years after the collapse. A sense that while remembering and presevation is a critical part of rebuilding culture, so too, an active forgetting (of the violence and isolation, we presume) is required for the same.

The future gestured to at the end of the novel is one of an expansion of connectivity (the lights go on again), the spread of ideas (the creation of a newspaper) and expanded travel (the networks of roads grow). It is a future, though, predicated on the tenacity and hope of its populace. The willingness of each character individually, and the groups collectively, to learn from one another and to trust one another (as in newspaper interviews and expansions of communities).

More than the (truly excellent) video game The Last of Us, the TV series The Walking Dead and the host of other post-apocolyptic futures we’ve encountered in recent years, Station Eleven calls on us to consider not only the everyday marvels and luxuries that surround our priviledged lives, but the threads of civilization that make a human life worth living: art, community, a connection to the past, a sense of hope for the future.

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The Circle: May it be Unbroken

circleHere is the good thing about Dave Egger’s *The Circle*: the premise. And what’s the premise? A tech company “The Circle” in the not-so-distant future *cough Google cough* has saturated the market to the point where it controls access to all information and uses this ‘power’ to control all spending, government, actions, individual thought. Protagonist Mae begins the novel indifferent to the power of the Circle, but becomes increasingly infatuated and then utterly committed to the ideology of the Circle – “all must be known” and “information is a human right” and “privacy is theft.” She is intended to serve as a reader-surrogate so that the reader might recognize the ways in which her current unconcern or apathy about the reach of global information conglomerates could readily bleed into a) total obligation to and investment in the conglomerate, b) an inability to think independently or to be alone and c) the totalitarian endgame of one entity (re: company) controlling all aspects of a citizenry. That is to say this is a book with a partisan message: start thinking seriously about the power of Google, start actively questioning reasonable limits of information access/sharing, start protesting the erosion of privacy and public space.

And that’s where the good in the novel ends. The premise is executed with a clumsiness and heavy-handedness that made me suspicious of Egger’s trust in the intelligence of his readers. And in the clumsy and heavy-handed I was left with a book that was still brilliant in its idea, rich in its setting, but entirely frustrating to read.

George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write” posits that one of the principle reasons for writing is to articulate and argue a political position. It isn’t, I don’t think, a terrifically trendy way to write or read fiction in 2013. And so perhaps it’s the decidedly aggressive political argument of *The Circle* that rubs me the wrong way – not the message itself, rather, the heavy-handed way the novel goes about making its argument. It lacks elegance, subtlety or complication. In its rush to make sure the reader gets the allegory and adopts the position of protecting privacy the novel risks negating the potential disruption of the allegory itself. I became less unsettled by the message (and at first it really was compelling) and more annoyed by how little Eggers trusted me to get the idea without Being Showed It In Capital Letters: ALLEGORY.

This heavy-handedness is most obvious (and annoying) in the character development of Mae. We’re supposed to – I imagine – see her casual decline into full acceptance of all things Circle. We’re supposed to see the semi-climactic scene where she’s in a room with one of the Wise Men (really. did I mention it’s heavy-handed?) getting a lesson on the selfishness of secrets and the rationality/generosity of open and unfettered access to individual actions, thoughts and beliefs as some kind of moment of revelation and change. Except all this reader could concentrate on was how *obvious* the whole thing was. The move from dependence on the company – excellent health care! fancy workplace! prestige! – to acceptance of its doctrines for pragmatic reasons – I’ll tweet and email because I’m told to! – to an adoption of the dogma because people are unthinking and pliable enough to assume any ideology if exposed to it long enough.

So while I’ll recommend *The Circle* because I think the (albeit grossly heavy-handed) message is worth considering, I do so with the caveat that if you’re already suspicious of the influence of Google then go ahead and skip this one. However, if you were – like me (and I’ll admit it) – apathetic about questions of surveillance, privacy, access-to-information, public space then do read it. Or at least, do read the first 75 pages. It makes a compelling – if also tenacious and indefatigable – argument well worth considering and acting upon.

 

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner