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.