I like post apocalyptic fiction because I think about the apocalypse a lot. I know that’s strange, but my husband is a type 1 diabetic. He needs a synthetic substance injected into him from a battery-powered device in order to live. He could do it manually with a syringe, so maybe the batteries could run out. But who knows how to make insulin? This is what I think about.
So I thought Station Eleven, a post apocalyptic fiction book by Emily St. John Mandel would be right up my alley, but then it decided to make me uncomfortable. And you know how I like a book that makes me uncomfortable.
Why I Was Uncomfortable
Books are meant to make us think, and Station Eleven did just that by positing this question –
What is the point if we are only surviving?
The author often delivers this quote: Survival is insufficient. As a child of the arts, both as a writer and a pianist, I know the arts are important. Piano lessons taught me the importance of reliability, time management, and accountability. Writing taught me to think deeper before making a choice, exploring the possibilities and impact a word may have, because words are the most powerful tools given to us.
But with a husband with type 1 diabetes, my brain is solely focused on survival should the apocalypse come. To be forced to examine the question of when survival is insufficient really left me rattled.
This gets to the why of survival.
The Why of Survival
Why are we running around trying to get food and shelter if there’s nothing to enjoy and appreciate?
This is an uncomfortable question, because it’s a very good point. Yes, we have food and water and shelter, but then what?
What about discovery and expression?
Discovery and expression and thus art take different forms in Station Eleven.
The traveling symphony is the center of the story, bringing both music and Shakespeare. Kirsten carries the paperweight with her even though it adds unnecessary weight because she thinks it’s beautiful. Clark has his museum of civilization, and he lovingly cares for the artifacts. Jeevan has the art of healing.
What Art Means
But just as art is splintered into various ways, the pockets of survivors represent what each of those bits of art propel. For example, there are rumors that the South is troublesome and dangerous. But Jeevan is there with his art of healing and cares for a man’s wife bringing order and healing.
Kirsten witnessing the return of electricity at the very end. Someone somewhere carried the need for discovery, and this got the lights turned back on although we never see what it was that drove this.
But it’s Station Eleven and Miranda that is the epitome of this question. Station Eleven, the graphic novel Miranda is creating in the book, is about a post-apocalyptic society and yet it is art. Miranda is trapped in a corporate world for survival and yet she thrives because she continues to work on Station Eleven.
The Sum of Its Parts
While we may see art as separate from survival it really isn’t. Just as Station Eleven the graphic novel is a series of interconnected pockets of civilization, the story that unfolds in this post apocalyptic fiction book reinforces this interconnection. Between the lives of the characters and how one pocket of civilization uses a piece of art to move civilization forward that may differ from another pocket.
I love when art informs real life, and I smiled when I discovered this survivalist bent on a reading event in Joshua Tree, California based on the book Station Eleven. This again speaks to the symbiotic relationship of survival and art.
But instead of asking what is the point of survival without art, I would instead ask how we can survive without art.
Emily St. John Mandel lives in New York City and has a new book coming out, The Glass Hotel, in spring 2020. This book will definitely be on my list. Meanwhile, the TV rights were recently purchased for Station Eleven and will likely come to the WarnerMedia streaming service.
Have You Read Station Eleven?
Tell us what you thought in the comments below, but please – no spoilers.