“Because Survival is Insufficient”

I started reading Emily St. John Mandel‘s Station Eleven this week. I’d heard about it on NPR a month or two back, and I remember thinking, “That sounds interesting. I should read that”. I mean, a Star Trek quote is central to the life of one of the main characters, it’s about the collapse of humanity in the wake of a pandemic, but it’s not about the pandemic itself, and a comic has a major role in it, too, without it being mocked as a childlike or loser-ish type of thing. It sounded like it would be right up my alley.  And then I didn’t go to the library or a bookstore right away, and one thing carried on after another, and I forgot about it.

It happened to be on one of the featured books tables by the checkout stand at the library, so I stepped over and grabbed it, and I’m glad I risked my spot in line.

End of the world stories are popular these days, whether the apocalypse is happening to the characters (The Walking Dead), or the end has already happened and a semblance of society has been rebuilt (The Hunger Games). But there aren’t so many of them (I haven’t come across them, anyway), where the story takes place a generation after The End. In Station Eleven, the primary part of the story happens twenty years after a flu pandemic wipes out the majority of the human population. There are those who remember the world as it was before, the younger ones who were children when the pandemic happened, and the generation who only knows the world as it has become. It’s a curious dynamic that feels real- a man staring longingly at a computer screen that reads “Error 404: Page Not Found” because he remembers and misses the internet; the woman who searches ruined shops and houses for celebrity magazines, trying to find photos of an actor she knew as a child. The older ones tell stories of flying across the ocean, electric lights, and air conditioning to the children who will probably never experience these things that were once taken for granted.

All the characters are written so richly and so realistically, even if they are relatively minor. Kirsten, for example, is an actor the Traveling Symphony. She performs Shakespeare in the plays the perform in the various settlements in the Great Lakes area, but her favorite quote isn’t from Shakespeare. It’s from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager- ‘Survival is insufficient’. On the show, the quote is about three characters who would rather die with their individuality intact than survive in a hive mind with their personalities stripped away. In Station Eleven, the quote describes why the Traveling Symphony does what they do: because merely living isn’t enough. We need music and stories to keep us together and remind us of who we are.

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