During the record-breaking 2005 tropical storm season, our corner of the world was devastated by Hurricane Rita. The area was cordoned off for weeks and when we were finally allowed home we faced a massive cleanup with no utilities and very limited infrastructure. Long lines were the norm for obtaining potable water and pre-packaged rations at designated drop sites. A two-to-three- hour roundtrip was common to find a gas station with both fuel and available electricity to pump it. Waiting patiently to be granted entrance into the few businesses that opened their doors for limited hours (ten persons at a time, cash-only please) was a daily ritual. Much of what we take for granted in modernity was either non-existent or required great effort and patience.
Although nature had given us a terrible blow, the disaster brought our community together in ways that were truly inspiring. During the weeks that our home (like everyone else’s) was left unattended and police patrols/neighborhood watches were virtually non-existent, nothing was vandalized or stolen. The first Saturday that we were allowed to return, I pulled into our driveway and saw a neighbor in my backyard with his chainsaw, cleaning up a large oak tree that had fallen onto my property. Multiple churches and community groups set up temporary kitchens in their parking lots where everyone was welcomed to a hot meal. A community network quickly sprang up on the local radio news channel, with regular programming replaced by information on the location of the next water drop and where the weeks of backlogged mail could be picked up. Few complained about the long lines and limited resources. Instead, there was a camaraderie that understood our predicament as a shared experience that demanded the best in us, not the worst.
This is why I absolutely loved Station Eleven, a different kind of dystopian novel by Emily St. John Mandel. Like my own community after a ravaging storm, St. John Mandel imagines a post-apocalyptic world inhabited more or less by people who are unwilling to merely survive, but choose instead to live with purpose (albeit in a far more horrific setting than a storm-ravaged town). Set in post-pandemic North America where ninety-nine percent of the world’s population has been erased by a flu virus, the novel centers on a caravan of traveling artists called The Traveling Symphony. Musicians and actors, they move from settlement to settlement performing classical concerts and Shakespeare’s plays.
Don’t let the idea of a traveling band of Beethoven-playing musicians and classical actors spouting “to be or not to be” mislead you. The Traveling Symphony is armed and ready to use deadly force when attacked. After all, the world can be a very dangerous place, before or after an apocalypse. In Station Eleven, the need to maim or kill to protect one’s life is commensurate with the world in which one lives, but it is only a small feature of that world, not an all-consuming component. Of much more importance is the need to be human, which means community, which further implies culture. Although the obvious dangers, suffering, loss and violence of a post-pandemic world are acknowledged within the narrative, St. John Mandel is more concerned with exploring the before-and-after of the event and the ways in which these two disparate worlds press on their inhabitants.
St. John Mandel envisions the kind of world that I suspect might actually materialize after the initial chaos and implosion caused by an apocalyptic event. Unlike many dystopian works, where the question of mere survival seems to overwhelm all else, St .John Mandel’s characters are committed to a broader vision of life. They are not surviving as much as they are living. As evidence of this mindset, painted on the side of one of the Traveling Symphony’s caravan wagons is the troupe’s motto “Survival Is Insufficient”.
I’m reminded of a theme in another book I’m reading by Charles and Gregory Fried (concerning the use of torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” to secure information from terrorists) which resonates in St. John Mandel’s novel: in matters of survival, the important question may not be that we survive, but what we survive as.
I highly recommend this thoughtful and entertaining novel.