Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

Something a bit different, for a change. This novel is set in a not-too-distant future after a pandemic has reduced the world’s population so dramatically that our technology-based society has given way to a simpler subsistence existence.  Yet the whole point of the story is that subsistence is never enough. Human beings always have a longing inside us for meaningful creativity. And so, through the small roadside villages of survivors, there travels a symphony orchestra and theatrical troupe.

The plot of this book meanders back and forth in time, all over the globe, and through a wide collection of loosely-connected lives. There isn’t really a tightly organized plot, in the end. What stays in my mind isn’t the specific details of who did what when, but rather an overall impression of an idea, lit up in flashes of remembered passing encounters.

In the pre-pandemic world, so technological and frenetic and confusing, the creative impulse and the search for meaning were always there, but they were often difficult to see clearly in all the bustle of other activity. A businesswoman writing comic-book novels as her outlet for something in her that needed expression. A bored paparazzo, seeking a more purposeful life as a medic. An actor who has been trapped in his role as a movie star, trying to get back to the art he first had loved on a stage.

During the years after the collapse, it seemed at first as though a stripped-down basic survival was the only life to be lived. But humans can’t live that way. And so, all around, the activities that make us truly human begin to happen. Musicians pick up their instruments. Actors take to the stage. In one town, a man starts writing and distributing a newspaper. A community living in an abandoned airport terminal sets aside one room as a history museum. A musician turns to writing a play. If it’s impossible to live without food and water and air, then it’s also impossible to live without something more than all that. If we are made in the image of a creator God, then we must be creators, too, somehow.

At the end of the book, there is a suggestion that someone, in a distant settlement, has re-started technology. There are electric lights out there. At first, we are leery of this development, remembering the frenetic technological life that crowded creativity and pushed it into sidelines. But on second thought, we remember that for some person, this electrical experimentation was also a form of creative exploration. And we remember that a new generation has grown up in the twenty years since the old world collapsed. We assume that they will simply copy the world we once knew. But why should they? More likely that they will follow a new path of their own. Maybe the new society will use technology differently. After all, the human race has rediscovered the pleasures of creative endeavor in a more bare-bones world. With that memory so fresh and near, something interesting is bound to result.

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