Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The plague of memory

The more you remember, the more you've lost.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Others ask, is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Emily St. John Mandel repeatedly asks a slightly different question in her post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven. Are those who remember the world before civilization ended better or worse off than those who don't?

The question is raised by many different characters in many different ways in the years after the Georgia Flu kills 99.9 percent of the world's population. The only survivors are those who are either immune to the virus or happen to be so isolated that they miss the contagion altogether. So many people are killed that the ability to do everything from produce energy to manufacture virtually anything is lost. People gather into traveling bands, the strong preying on the weak, with everyone constantly searching for food.

As years pass, older people still fondly remember airplanes, computers, cell phones and televisions. Those who are younger remember little or nothing about the civilization that was lost, although a museum established in an abandoned airport gives them some idea. So who is better off? "We long only for the world we were born into," one character says, a commentary most of us can relate to after a certain stage of life, with or without an apocalypse.

Two key characters were small children when civilization ended. The girl, one of the novel's more positive characters, remembers very little of those days. Of the boy, the story's villain, she wonders if he "had had the misfortune of remembering everything."

The story is framed by literature, Shakespeare on one end and a graphic novel called "Station Eleven" on the other. The latter, created by one of the main characters, tells of a space station that has been traveling to distant stars for so many years that the crew has no memory of Earth, the planet where their flight originated. Station Eleven is the world they were born into.

As for William Shakespeare, he was living at the time of the Bubonic Plague, and his work was influenced by it. Station Eleven opens with a production of one of Shakespeare's plays in Toronto just before the Georgia Flu strikes, and afterward one of the roving bands performs his plays on their travels, mostly through what once was Michigan. Computers, cell phones and televisions may no longer be operable, but if Shakespeare survives, can civilization be truly said to have died?

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