Monday, January 4, 2016
Philosophy Of The Post-Apocalypse: Station Eleven Edition
Over the break I read this excellent post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven. Unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, this book really got to me -- in the sense of making me feel I should learn some post-apocalyptic-appropriate skill like fighting or sewing, and also in the sense of making me feel like somehow the apocalypse is realistically right around the corner.
I think the reason this book made me feel its reality so effectively is because it is .. well, completely realistic. It's not about some weird future world. It's about what our total actual world would be like if an awful contagious and fatal disease killed 99 percent of people and everything completely collapsed.
Like a lot of dystopian novels, this one is pretty philosophical. Partly because it involves a pandemic instead of a man-made oh-we-brought-this-all-on-ourselves, it goes beyond some of the more obvious cheap-shots at humankind that dystopian novels can sometimes take.
Yes, this post has spoilers. But in a book where the apocalypse happens at the beginning, it hardly matters, does it? So: in no particular order, a few themes from Station Eleven.
1. The post-apocalyptic future is not a future of moral clarity.
I am so sick of narratives involving good guys and bad guys, where the whole story is about good and evil and how evil people do evil things and good people try to stop them. Not only is this a completely inaccurate representation of our world of moral complexity, I think it's turning a lot of people into moral morons. You're with us or against us! We'll bomb them back into the stone age! You can't let the terrorists win!
Only a citizenry stuffed to the gills with Star Wars Death Star Good Versus Evil simplicity could be sold this sort of black and white vision of the world. In Station Eleven, some good people have to do some pretty awful things, and the bad people -- well, even the main hero of the book is like, "Who knows why? I bet they saw some awful things."
2. Civilization is kind of a human miracle.
Sometimes in modern life civilization seems so inevitable, so part of the landscape, you can almost forget it about how surprising and miraculous it is. Over and over in this book the characters who survive and make their way through the empty world marvel at the leftover remnants of the civilized world, and especially at the way that world was a world of people.
At one point one of the characters muses that we tend to think of the modern era as somehow depersonalized, when in fact it's people who do everything to keep it moving along. The pandemic doesn't destroy any of the material world -- it just kills people. But without people, there's no one to fix the grid, there's no one to make anything or move anything around -- the whole world just comes to a complete standstill.
At one point one of the characters beholds a snowglobe. On the one hand, it's just a trite object from an airport gift shop. But on the other hand, it's an object that represents massive global interaction: someone to design the object, someone to make and assemble it, someone to package it in a box, someone to put it on a container ship to somewhere.
This crazy sense of a world of billions of people coordinating their actions --without which we're just a bunch of scared bipeds trying to shoot deer for food.
3. The everything-happens-for-a-reason-people are going to kill us all.
One of the biggest dangers of the post-apocalyptic world is prophets and cults -- the people who believe that their connection to the deep meaning of it all gives them license to threaten, dominate, and kill others. One of the scariest prophets in the book is someone who was about eleven years old when the pandemic strikes, and whose mother always taught him that "everything happens for a reason." He naturally infers that the saved were saved because the are the special people.
Well- meaning citizens try to explain to him that no -- in this case it's just germs, and they got some people and not others, there really isn't any deeper meaning to it. But, post-apocalyptic moods being what they are, he doesn't really buy it.
The main story line of the book follows a traveling symphony that goes around in rusted out vans pulled by horses, playing classical music and also performing Shakespeare. Their motto is "Survivial is not enough" -- a slogan they got from an old Star Trek episode. They're always a bit baffled by the point of what they're doing, and whether it's pointless to perform Shakespeare instead of something more suited to their strange condition.
I loved the way they were muddling through, confused, uncertain, and just trying to do something. It seemed to me the opposite perspective to everything-happens-for-a-reason, more like Who-the-hell-knows-what's-going-on-and-why? It might be hard to see the Forces of Uncertainty as the Forces of Good, but I think surprisingly often, they are.