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14 May 2015

Modern life is a miracle. If you don’t believe me, read this book

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel prompts a heart-rending nostalgia for what is in fact our living present.

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve just read a book that has made me fall back in love with the world. No mean feat, given that it is essentially a piece of post-apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, of the kind I usually run a mile from. I can all too easily imagine myself caught up in some end-of-the-world scenario and don’t need much prompting to fixate on what it would be like, so I switch channels when Panorama does a special on antibiotics running out, or when Channel 4 has a whole evening on our inevitable and imminent extinction.

For some reason, though, I decided to have a go with this book – Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel – as I’d heard it was more uplifting than downcasting, and so it proved. Opening with a totally scary imagining of a pandemic – the “Georgia flu”, which spreads like wildfire, killing 99 per cent of the world’s population in a matter of weeks – it depicts all too vividly how quickly things fall apart when there’s no one left alive to hold the centre together. But instead of dwelling on this, the novel immediately fast-forwards to a time 20 years or so after the collapse; the story then focuses on pockets of survivors, and specifically a travelling band of actors performing Shakespeare in this newly candlelit, underpopulated world.

The mood that gripped me was not one of horror, but a heart-rending nostalgia for what is in fact our living present. Instead of provoking dread, the book inspired in me a kind of mindfulness, a new awareness of things I take for granted. I found myself staring in gratitude and wonder at my phone, the fridge, the light switches. I began to notice every text and email, to marvel at the planes in the sky.

This was interesting to me because it seemed to challenge a current trend towards dissatisfaction with the way we live now; a generalised Modern Life Is Rubbish attitude that suggests we’re all overwhelmed and exhausted by our belongings, that our stuff is dragging us down, our attention levels have been ruined, and we need to escape from it all. I read all the time about people wanting to disconnect from social media, or wishing their kids did more cycling in the woods and less texting at the table.

Although I understand, and don’t entirely disagree, I worry that what’s lost in all this angst is an acknowledgement that the reason we’ve become so hooked on all this stuff is that it’s mostly wonderful. We might occasionally feel oppressed by it, but God, how much we’d miss it. And maybe it’s no accident that so many of our beloved gadgets exist for the purpose of communication: bringing people together to share thoughts and silly jokes.

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In Station Eleven, because it’s flu and not global warming or nuclear war that has caused the end of civilisation, there is no implied guilt for the reader. It wasn’t our greed that brought us to this pass, merely our misfortune. So, we are cleared of the implication that we are voracious and insane for liking the modern world. We might worry that the Apple Store and Niketown look like museums that have replaced culture with commerce, but in the novel, when Clark collects and collates items for his Museum of Civilisation, lovingly arranging dead phones and iPods on shelves, carefully dusting and preserving them, it seems like an act of reverence and forgiveness; an acceptance that cherishing the likes of laptops and planes doesn’t mean we’re stupid, it means they’re amazing.

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The book is suffused with the wonder of nature, but even more with the wonder of human invention, from Shakespeare and comic books to all the magical machines that make our lives possible.

What the characters miss most, in their post-electricity age, is light. When a distant flickering finally suggests a faint, unconfirmed possibility of civilisation’s return, the feeling is one of joy. I was left buoyed by the thought that modern life is actually full of blessings and that, rather than scorning or fearing them, I should just be sure to notice them, and value them, and rejoice. And try not to worry too much about flu.