On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in mid-July, I dropped back the latest batch of books that I had taken out from my local library and checked out “Station Eleven”. I devoured it by early Sunday evening! After 99.9% of the world’s population was killed with a lethal dose of the flu, the remaining survivors had to slowly pick up the pieces. “Station Eleven” was “Mad Max” meets “28 Days Later” with a strong environmental message – that we need to save the earth before it is too late. Two of the main characters were Arthur and Clark in a neat homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001 A Space Odyssey”. Despite the dystopian message, I also read it as a paean to the “spectacular world” that we have created.
I interpreted “Station Eleven” as praise for the role that art and history played, and continue to play, in the world. The book opened with Arthur dying on-stage as he was performing in his play. His career passed into immortality as he died. There were frequent references to Shakespeare. In the “New World,” as it was called, people were desperate to rekindle the culture of old. The Bard was viewed as a writer of the pre-technological era which emphasised the concept of how timeless his work was. Writing with a simple pen and paper gleaned from the earth, he uncovered a number of universal truths about the human condition.
Francois Diallo began recording interviews with people in the New World and circulated a newspaper. The study of history became a bedrock of how the New Society began to collectively regenerate itself, reminding us of how the initial printing press in the fifteenth century was a vehicle for social change that resulted in the communication of ideas and concepts. The thought of this type of mass communication not being possible in the future is terrifying, especially for a society that takes advantage of these benefits. Think of when Clarke created a museum in Severn City Airport and how it was further evidence of how people found it essential to chronicle our past with as much fastidious attention to detail as possible. Recording our story was, and is, crucial to our evolution.
When August and Kirsten were separated from the Travelling Symphony, “August searched for a TV guide or poetry”. This was at a critical juncture when searching for food to survive would have been more important. Even in this perilous state, the people looked for any vestige of the past to cling onto. The very notion of the Travelling Symphony, a band of musicians and poets travelling together in a world still rebuilding itself, spoke volumes for the need for culture and art in the New World.
The symbol of the paperweight was revealing. Miranda and Kirsten both cherished and protected it. Arthur wrote unrequited letters to an old friend in a throwback to a more simpler mode of communication in the past. The wafer-thin lines between art, life and death were breached throughout, especially when Miranda was about to pass away, “She opened her eyes to see the sunrise. A wash of violent colour, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven”. Layered in the adherent pulchritude of Mandel’s prose was the notion of Miranda being unable to differentiate between her own artistic creation and real life. Similar to when Arthur died. The comic book Station Eleven was important. Dr Eleven was the rationale for the Prophet’s violence in the new era.
The most interesting design in “Station Eleven” was contained in the tattoo Kirsten had on her arm, “because survival is insufficient”. The slogan surfaced on countless occasions and it was captivating to reflect on. If history is an attempt, however vain and biased, to evaluate our previous actions as a species, then what is art? It is a vital, genetic urge, dating back as far as we can record in human history, to communicate our inner thoughts with each other. Art is history. Taken further, art was critical to our evolution as a species. In its most constituent sense, it was a building block on which we critiqued the way we lived as a species. Art is a pillar of evolution itself. A form of language and a fundamental mode of communication between us that permits us to learn, change, grow and evolve. This is the central concept in “Station Eleven”. It is not just enough to survive.
After Jeevan had desperately hounded Miranda after a late night, she revealed some humanity by talking to him, which was slammed back in her face when he photographed her in a vulnerable state. This led him to conclude that “the whole entertainment journalist idea thing had been a mistake”. Elsewhere, the paparazzi are described as “fucking parasites”. Yet, there is one sense in which the whole image of this culture might just be worthwhile. In the New World, celebrity gossip magazines were used as valuable historical artefacts to evaluate how we lived. In the airport at the beginning of the New World, a couple irritated Clark by desiring to Tweet about being with Arthur Leander’s kid when their very survival was in jeopardy.
“Station Eleven” was a first-rate, post-apocalyptic future-Noire thriller that read like a sharp jolt of electricity in my mind. Never have we have it so good and yet we are absolutely hell-bent on the anthropogenic annihilation of our planet. Peering into our doomed future has immediate lessons for our present. As Elizabeth said to Arthur in the airport, “Are we supposed to believe that civilisation has just come to an end?” to which he responded, “Well…it was always a little fragile wouldn’t you say?” Quite.