Technology in the Apocalypse

A review of Emily St. John's Station Eleven

Technology in the Apocalypse
Image: Andrew Liptak

End of the world books, like their counterparts in alternative history section, extrapolate all the factors necessary to answer that most basic of questions posed by science fiction: what if? Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven is the latest in a long line of these types of novels, and it’s one of the best recent examples of particular subgenre—a distinction that just earned it the Arthur C. Clarke Award. While there’s much to say about its literary merits, its worth as a genre story, it’s also a compelling meditation on our relationship with technology.

The plot follows a trio of interconnected characters during and after a period of global collapse, caused by a flu pandemic. On the eve of the outbreak, Arthur Leander dies in the midst of playing King Lear. Also present are 8-year-old actress Kirsten Raymonde and Jeevan Chaudhary, a former photographer and current EMT, and as the world ends, Arthur’s death follows them decades into the future.

What most striking about Station Eleven is its examination of our technological lives. There’s no better way to consider our reliance on the innovations of the modern world than to take them away, and Mandel’s book, with its intertwining storylines set before and after the fall, uses its structure to explore the contrast. We live in a technological world: Arthur’s ex-wife Melinda works in shipping, and we see her as a key part in a vast infrastructural system. Jeevan is a photographer and journalist covering the entertainment industry, an occupation that owes its existence to its own set of technological structures. On the other side of the collapse, Kirsten and a small company of actors maintain a profession that owes little to technology: the theater.

Each character serves as a means to examine a small slice of the world. It’s Kirsten, who grew up in a post-collapse world, who has the least trouble existing. She’s either forgotten or repressed her memories of her comfortable childhood. She’s able to forge ahead, holding onto only a few small reminders of her former life: Station Eleven, a sci-fi graphic novel printed by Melinda, scraps of articles about Arthur. Jeevan seems well-suited for adaptation, changing professions as the world changes around him. Others, such as Arthur’s friend Clark and ex-wife Elizabeth, have more difficulty: Clark sets up a museum devoted to relics of the former world, phones and laptops and motorcycles, enshrined in a former airport, the pinnacle of a defunct technological infrastructure. Elizabeth and her son, Tyler, have their own difficulties simply trying to make sense of what has changed; Tyler adapts by going Old Testament, founding a murderous cult.

Throughout, it’s clear that no one is entirely comfortable with their station in life. Even before the end of things, Arthur is stuck in the past, while in the after, Jeevan is caught in the present, neither looking backward or moving forward. Kirsten is intent only on making it another day, seeking not only to survive, but to thrive in this new world. In every way, all of their lives are ruled by their relationships with technology: Arthur’s fame is worldwide, the product of a global communications infrastructure, while Kirsten’s world lacks the conveniences he took for granted. It doesn’t seem to bother her in the least, and Mandel seems to be reminding us there are things that transcend the modern world, things that are important, but neglected. Kirsten is almost content; Arthur decidedly isn’t.

That’s not to suggest Mandel is advocating a return to the Stone Age. She’s reminding us how easy it is to be swept away by the flow of modern life, speeding from moment to moment, rarely recognizing that it’s the relationships we forge, and not technological conveniences, that truly enrich our lives. Interestingly, it’s the far future that seems to fascinate Kirsten and Tyler. They each carry copies of Station Eleven with them; the events of that fantastical fiction mirror some of the larger events they’re facing. Likewise, a quote from Star Trek serves as a mantra for Kirsten: “Because survival is insufficient.” Each has grown up in a world without lights, running water, airplanes, or phones; each intrigued by the possibility of the future, of what humanity might one day accomplish.

This post was originally published on the Barnes & Noble Sci-fi & Fantasy Blog.