In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, we flip back and forth between narratives in the future and the past. The future takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America. The government isn’t anywhere to be found, more than half of civilization is missing, and the world just seems empty. Is that it? Is that how easy it is to snuff out the world?
The flu in Station Eleven truly does seem like the end of the world. This is in contrast to other pieces of media depicting post-apocalypse, where usually, viewers are given some room for hope. Hope that the rest of the world isn’t as destroyed, that other people are coming, that they’re not alone. There’s nothing to defend against either, no zombies or common enemy to go up against. Sure, The Prophet is a recurring antagonist, but he’s one of many. It could easily be debated that The Prophet is a result of a badly parented child left to his own spiritual devices, a persona born from boredom. The idea of surviving in a world alone is daunting, if “Survival is insufficient” once you have all your bases covered, i.e. water, food, and shelter, what else is there to survive? Boredom, probably. Who knows how differently Tyler could’ve turned out if his Nintendo console hadn’t died.
People weren’t the only things that died because of the Georgia flu, modern technology, culture, and politics as we know them died too. But was that really the end of it? They existed once and never again? Doubtful. Life is ephemeral, but like culture and technology, it’s cyclical. The flu is just a fact of nature, it was almost like cleansing the world, obviously not in the same way that people like The Prophet see it. Cleansing in the same way that a natural fire takes place, the opportunity to start anew. While it may seem like the world fell apart, what really kept it alive was the people willing and working to keep it that way. People like the Traveling Symphony, Clark and The Museum of Civilization, and Jeevan and his small medical practice. In each of these examples, there is special emphasis placed on learning and teaching. Jeevan was already studying to be an EMT and after civilization collapsed he apprenticed under a practiced doctor. There is an obvious higher need for Jeevan’s medical skills in the new world, especially if you consider that the people closest and most exposed to the virus, in the beginning, were doctors, people like Jeevan’s friend Hua. The knowledge of a doctor is something most usefully past down through teaching versus trial and error, fewer people are put at risk. The need for plays, music, and artifacts from the past might seem less useful but it is just as necessary.
History and the Arts are what begins to fulfill the needs towards the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Music and theatre bring people together, there is intimacy in sharing a moment of beauty with others. History lets us learns and encourages us to do better. The preservation of the knowledge is so important. Not only does it prevent having to relearn and reinvent, it assists in realizing the potential of the self and people around us. In Station Eleven there is mention of electric generators but there was no way to use them, “all the workers who knew how the generators worked has left…” (p.244)
Psychological needs are very important, more important than most would think. The need for reassurance and that “everything happens for reason” can be comforting but take it too much to heart and it can be a recipe for disaster. Why? Because there exists the chance that instead of taking that school of thought and living life freely with it people will choose to deny themselves in an effort to reach a higher power, “it’s some sort of survival mechanism”(p.106) a refusal or denial to change. There are multiple examples throughout Station Eleven of this, the most recurrent one being Elizabeth. All the way back in chapter 15 she tells Miranda “I think this is happening because it was supposed to happen.” It’s the same kind of thinking Tyler adopts and later implements once he becomes The Prophet.
Culture is more than we will ever know. We have no way of knowing in how many ways, however small they may be, we impact others, even years down the line. The world in Station Eleven was saved through the people and their memories of the past. To preserve culture is to preserve knowledge and though we know may never comprehend the full scale of it, preservation is key to survival and key to human legacy in Station Eleven.