Station Eleven and why I’m not on board.

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Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is gaining widespread acclaim. It is a New York Time’s bestseller, and was a 2014 National Book Award finalist. For the life of me, I cannot understand way. While personally, 2014 wasn’t a stellar year for reads, this was by far the biggest disappointment.

To by far to Mandel, part of the disappointment can be can be laid at the feet of Random House. I was sent an e-mail by the publisher telling me of an exciting new book that told the tale of a troop of actors in a post-apocalyptic world struggling to keep culture alive by putting on plays by Shakespeare. The group was determined to bring light to another wise darkened world. Shakespeare, post-apocalyptic lit? My heart skipped a beat; why didn’t I think of this? My two favorite types of lit in on book. With a little envy for Mandel’s idea, yet excited to see how this would play out I pre-ordered the book. I could hardly wait to read it. This had to be good, right?

Post-apocalyptic literature, as you know, concentrates on survival. The struggle to survive, and what it means to survive is usually played out with characters coming face to face with situations they otherwise would never encounter. Authors push their characters into the darkness in order to see just how far someone can go and still retain their humanity. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a good example of this. I cannot think of any post-apocalyptic book that shows the struggle to retain culture. The idea that survival depends on keeping culture alive is novel, yet very much needed. What is the purpose of rebuilding civilization if culture is dead? This question was one that was promised to be answered within the pages of Station Eleven. As it turned out, the promise was broken.

The plot is very convoluted, so bear with me as I try to unravel it. The story starts a few hours before the pandemic that will end up wiping out most of humanity hits New York. Famed actor Arthur Leander is on stage as Lear when he suffers a major heart attack and dies. A medic named Jeevan who is in the audience tries to save him. A child named Kirsten Raymonde is on stage when Arthur dies. She is very fond of Arthur who had just hours before had given her two comic books from a series titled Station Eleven. The comic tells the tale of a group of post-apocalyptic survivors traveling through space. Some of the survivors want to return to earth and see if humanity has survived, while others want to find a new planet in order to start fresh.

The first part of the book centers on Jeevan and his struggle to understand the horrors of a worldwide pandemic. It is compelling reading but unrelated to the central plot. Once his story is told, the book then jumps 15 years after the fall of civilization. It is here we meet our troop of “actors”, Kirsten Raymond is one of them.

Instead of meeting a group of people who have retained a civilized or cultured way of life, we are introduced to characters who seem to be suffering from post traumatic syndrome, which is odd given that Mandel tells us most are too young to remember life before the apocalypse or were born after the fall. The actors use the excuse of traveling in order to avoid settling somewhere. All the communities they encounter are dangerous or are wary of strangers. After a run in with one particularly cult- like community, Kirsten and a companion become separated from the troop and set out to find the fabled Severn City. This city turns out to be an airport full of survivors and their offspring. It is here where past and present collide. This is also the best part of the book. I would have been singing Mandel’s praises if she had written an entire book about these “airport” characters.

One of my biggest complaints is a problem that is shared with other post-apocalyptic novels. Why, if so many people survived, can no one figure out how to get the electricity back on? In this novel all the engineers, mechanics, and homegrown preppers must have died because no one has a clue how to do anything! Boy scouts know how to make batteries out of potatoes, yet there’s not a boy scout among the hundreds of survivors. Everyone we meet acts as if they’ve always lived in a third world country.

As I read the book, I could not help but think that Mandel was trying to tell too many stories for one book. The novel jumps back and forth in time. A large portion of the book tells of the decline of Arthur’s marriage to his second wife Miranda, the author of Station Eleven. Like Jeevan’s story, this had little to do with the plot and took a lot away from it. Mandel would have been better off, using these pages to make good on the promise of bringing light into a darkened world.

This is a novel about memories and how we hold on to them when our world is falling apart. This is the strength of the book and should have been the focus. It is when Mandel is writing about memories and what they mean to us that the book becomes alive. But sadly, because she offers so many characters and such a long time span, even this becomes stale. I am sure Mandel has a message but it was lost in all of her backstories. It’s hard to take a book about memories serious, if those we are supposed to remember won’t go away.

The novel ends so abruptly one has to wonder if there is a sequel coming or if Mandel became tired of writing. It was as if she realized in the last chapter she had nowhere to go with this story. I felt cheated. As much as I liked bits and pieces of the book, taken as a whole it just fell flat. It was a collection of short stories rather than one cohesive story.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why this is the book everyone is talking about. I am hopping one of you has read it, and can give me a good reason as to why it is so highly praised. Hamlet sums up my feelings best.

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

 

Are you ready for post-apocalyptic fiction?

Apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of both dystopian and science-fiction literature. The theme revolves around the complete collapse of society either through war, nuclear attacks, plague or some catastrophic natural disaster.

My interest in apocalyptic fiction stems from two real life experiences along with a morbid fascination with the ways in which people would cope in a post-society world.

I grew up in northern California. One of my favorite places was the small town of Guerneville nestled among towering redwoods and waist high ferns. The Russian River run though the town. So when my best friend, who lived on a hill in Guerneville, asked me to spend a rainy weekend I was thrilled to say yes.

This was when we were young and foolhardy. I was the only one in our group of friends to own a car, so the first thing I did when I got to Maureen’s house was pick her up and head to the local grocery store.  I think she was blabbing on about her latest boyfriend as we walked down the isles. I was only half listening because my attention was on the other shoppers. Something wasn’t right.

Guerneville at the time, was a small town and the only time one saw any store packed with shoppers was during the summer tourist season, Yet, as I looked around I noticed a lot of shoppers and well, they all looked stressed and a little rushed. Many kept looking down at lists and some would stop and talk to other shoppers. I overheard two men talking about candles and flashlights. It was then that I started to consider the amount of rain we were getting and the wind gusts I could hear from the walls of the store. Guerneville had a history of mass flooding but the last flood had been over 20 years. Did we have any reason to worry? I didn’t think so, yet something compelled me to add two jugs of water, a couple of candles and extra potatoes (don’t ask, that’s another story) into the basket.

That night we had a grand time eating fried hamburger and potatoes. Engaging in philosophical debates as only young people can. The rain never stopped but this was to be expected in the land of giant trees and large ferns. The electricity went out around 10pm and the mudslide that destroyed the house farther up the hill hit around midnight.

To make what is fast becoming a long story short, four of us were trapped in Maureen’s house for three days. The river had not only crested over its banks, it flooded the first story of every house that sat within a two-mile radius. The store we had shopped in was flooded up to the third shelf! The main road became the river as water roared through Guerneville. There we sat, four 21 year olds with little food, hardly any water and absolutely no idea how to survive without electricity. Thank goodness it was only a few days.

Six years later my then husband and I built our dream home on a mountain between the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean. It took longer than expected so instead of moving in during the mild month of October, we moved during the stormy month of January. Luckily for my son and I, the last load consisted of a car full of canned goods and bottled water (our well was full of iron rich water, something we would have to deal with later). My husband stayed in the town of Santa Rosa as he worked late and decided not to make the two-hour drive in the dark.  Big mistake. By the next morning the storm of the century had wiped out the only mountain road leading in and out of our small community. My son and I were trapped on the mountain with no electricity. No electricity meant no lights, no working toilets, no refrigerator, no heat. We might as well of been living in the dark ages (at least they had fireplaces). Once again luck was on my side. My sister-in-law also lived on the mountain just down the road. She taught me that gas stoves can be lit by a turn of the knob and a lit match, that with a small bucket of water toilets can be manually flushed. I learned what can and cannot be plugged into a generator and how to run one with its back-end facing away from the house. I learned how camping stoves and propane lamps are very useful, not to bug out, but to bug in. After these two experiences I vowed to learn how to survive without modern conveniences. My fascination with post-apocalyptic literature was born.

The first recognizable apocalyptic novel was Mary Shelly’s, 1826 The Last Man Standing. Yes the women who gave us our first science fiction novel in Frankenstein also gave us our first look at life in a post-apocalyptic world. That is, if you don’t count Noah and the flood, the Book of Revelation, (which I talked about in my last post) and numerous Babylonian and Judaic myths and stories, some of which dealt with the end of the world and of human society. It seems we humans have always had a fascination with societal birth and death cycles, but it was Shelly who ushered in the modern doomsday scenario.

Post-apocalyptic-related works of fiction gained in popularity after World War II, when the possibility of global annihilation by nuclear weapons entered the public consciousness. Once the fear of nuclear attacks died down, disease became the popular theme of this genre. Did you know that we have had more zombie related movies and books since 9/11 than in any other time in history? The fear of contagion and man-made viruses are what grips us now.

Whatever or however it comes, you need to ask yourself, “Am I ready?”

My favorite post-apocalyptic novels.

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Stephen King’s The Stand.

The Stand has it all. A classic divide between hero and villain, good and evil. This novel is less about the end of the world and more about people finding their true nature. Would you, could you survive if there was nothing left to live for and if so, whose side would you be on?  If nothing else, this book taught me to fear dark roadway tunnels.

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Jean Hegland, Into the Forest.

Set in northern California (very near where I grew up) Into the Forest speculates about what might happen when our unsustainable civilization finally collapses. What scared me most was that Hegland does not use a disaster, but rather a slow decline in our resources, something no one notices until food shortages became food scarcity. Two sisters try to live as normal as possible on a small farm until the day comes when they realize the natural world is their new home.

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Mary Shelly, The Last man

The Last Man, is a disillusioned vision of the end of civilization, set in the twenty-first century. The book is a all-encompassing account of war, plague, love, and desolation. What hauntes me about this book is not that there seems to be only one human left, but that it seems as if Shelly were writing her emotional autobiography. While researching for this post, I came across some scholars who hold the same view. Shelly, uses her “last man” to tell us how she feels after losing her family and friends. Knowing this makes the book all that more painful.

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Richard Adams Watership Down

Watership Down uses rabbits instead of humans to show us just how crazy the world can get. This band of rabbits may seem like sweet fuzzy creatures, but when their warren is ruined, they must hit the road to find a new home while facing impossible dangers, relying on their cultural mythology for guidance, and avoiding survivors who seek their destruction. Some continue to be sweet and fuzzy while others act very un-rabbit like. It is creepy because the story is so human.

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Nevil Shute, On the Beach.

On the Beach is the story of life after the nuclear apocalypse. As fallout slowly kills the remaining humans on Earth the characters are faced with a dilemma. Not whether to live or die but rather how to die. Should they wait for radiation sickness or commit suicide? Moral dilemma is a common theme in apocalyptic novels and so far this 1957 novel is the best to date when it comes to making us face our fear of death.

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Morgan Nyberg, Since Tomorrow

Set in West Coast of Canada, in which the city of Vancouver has been altered by climate change, pandemic, economic collapse and earthquake into “Town”, a squalid, lawless place inhabited the desperate, the diseased and the dying and where potatoes, yes potatoes, are worth more than gold. This vividly drawn world is so real, so gritty and dirty that after reading it you’ll want a shower and hours of mindless TV. Just be careful not to watch Mad Max.