“Because Survival is Insufficient”

There are not many writers who would take a line from Star Trek (Voyager) and make it the motto of their book. But we certainly appreciate the ones who do. Emily St.John Mandel’s book Station Eleven is all about what will happen if the world as we know it comes to an end. Will the survivors be in a position to think beyond food and shelter in a world where there is no electricity, water supply, internet, mechanised travel or cell phones? The book deals mostly with survivors scattered around the Great Lakes area. All of them seem in some way to connect back to Arthur Leander, an actor who dies at the start of the book and it keeps going back in time to make the connections.
PS: The book is different from other post-apocalyptic novels in that it is not set immediately after the collapse due to a highly infectious flu killing off 99% of the population. The main part of the story is set twenty years later.
LL: In a sense the reader is protected from the gruesome things which may have happened in the immediate aftermath. But modern life being what it is, just having to think about managing without the gadgets and conveniences is panic inducing in its own way.
PS: The book was reminiscent of what would have happened if the SARS virus had spread unchecked and within a matter of hours. Since the book is set in the U.S and Canada, we don’t know what has happened in the rest of the world but presumably the structures of government have collapsed all over. The only contact between small settlements are the travelling peddlers and the theatrical group which travels from place to place enacting Shakespeare plays and holding mini concerts.
LL: But it is also worrying that godmen keep turning up everywhere, insisting that they are better than other people.
PS: I think the nicest thing about the book is that even when everything has gone, people will still want classical music and Shakespeare. The thought that humanity needs culture as much as the basics of survival is sort of redeeming and heartening.
LL: Also there is a man in one of the towns who sets up a newspaper. Human beings will always gossip. Then there is the museum which has obsolete things like cell phones, iPads and credit cards displayed so that future generations have an idea of the objects which were central to human life.
PS: I was intrigued by the names of Arthur and his best friend Clark. I wonder if Emily St.John Mandel is an Arthur C. Clarke fan. Or whether she just ran through the names of sci-fi and fantasy authors for her characters. Whether Kristin Raymonde is named after Raymond E. Feist? Coincidentally the book won the Arthur C. Clarke prize this year.
LL: Station Eleven is more worrying than the slew of post-apocalyptic novels that have come out recently. Possibly because it is more real. Books like the Hunger Games or Divergent can be read purely as fantasy but a rapidly spreading flu or virus is so much more probable and our inability to do anything about it is scary.
PS: It is no doubt a disturbing book but fascinating in the vestiges of humanity that are retained. The desire to retain whatever has been held precious remains even after nothing else survives.


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