Station Eleven and the Politics of Apocalypse Fiction

I was lucky enough to review a piece of writing by my brother-in-law last night. It was a treatment of the apocalypse as a concept and a power word, something imbued with such a crushing weight of significance that saying it out loud brings more than two thousand years to bear. 

I think that for those of us on the left it is very much the case that we wield the term ‘apocalypse’ with little skill. It is a thing we’re always guarding against and much of the time no one cares. The specter of nuclear annihilation, or environmental collapse, or pandemic illness are all very clearly present on the horizon of every moment of every day and it is often unclear whether our collective action makes a difference. 

When I was a child I could not sleep because of the thought that a day could arrive in which I would watch a mushroom cloud climbing into the sky, and then see a shockwave speeding towards me, a force so big that I would be erased abruptly. I didn’t want to die at all, but I would have preferred to die slowly. The thought that everyone would die was that much more terrible. I don’t know why. 

I understand these things better now. The idea that ‘the world ends’ seems matter of fact. There are fast deaths just as often as there are slow deaths and it seems reasonable to believe that catastrophes will kill some of us rapidly, more of us slowly, and that ultimately every life ends, regardless of the context. 

Midnight Notes Collective defines the boundaries of armageddon, writing on the energy crisis of the 1970’s and the prospect of nuclear war: “Everybody dies and even if everybody dies at the same time (I mean everybody) what’s the problem? The earth becomes a cleared tape and why should the angels grieve?” But they continue, removing the fire and brimstone, and call the apocalypse by its true name: “I am talking about those functional apocalypses that mark every change in capitalist development and thought.” 

The apocalypse is a set-piece for a crisis in a regime of power. 

Our apocalypse fictions speak to this. The stories we encounter are rarely about any particular armageddon and how exactly human bodies stop working at its flashpoint, but about how a society falls apart.

There is a sad authoritarian bias in apocalypse fiction. People revert to atrocity in a heartbeat and it’s generally up to some former lawman to lead virtuous survivors into the future. That we don’t see human solidarity and the foundations of a new society emerging in the stories we consume is, I think, the outcome of a ceaseless propaganda campaign that never gets identified as what it is, and this propaganda campaign has been remarkably successful. 

It is the case that rapacious monsters are unleashed by disasters, but they emerge in the form of Rick Grimes analogs, those people who are used to exercising violence and banishing imagination from their lives. 

Writing on self-organization among those displaced in Mexico City in the aftermath of 1985’s devastating earthquake, Harry Cleaver argues that “For those of us outside of Mexico, the people of Tepito have an important lesson to teach […] We should always be ready to take advantage of any crack or rupture in the structures of power which confine us. Only those who benefit from these structures should fear such cracks. For the rest of us, they are openings through which we may gain access to more freedom.”

Were I still in possession of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasters I would quote it at length, but the core statement she makes is that profound upheavals generally result in rapid cooperative responses that distribute labor and resources effectively and with obvious reason. Where violence arises in these circumstances is through paramilitary forces (these being the police) seeking to re-establish the dictatorship of private property and the command of the state. Which is a profoundly long way around to stating that Station Eleven is a triumph that exposes the poverty of imagination that those of us who live on pop-culture contend with. 

A no-spoiler distillation of the plot is that a child acts in a production of King Lear on the eve of a catastrophic outbreak of disease and in the ensuing panic is walked home by a very frightened man. There is a graphic novel in her possession. Twenty years later a theater troupe travels through the Great Lakes region, performing Hamlet for communities that they’ve been visiting for several years. 

It avoids the predictable maneuvers of apocalypse stories. There are no great heroes or great villains, just people navigating the cyclicality of things- overwhelmingly, it is a story about stories, and as most lovers of stories will know, they are at once repetitive and new. The characters and the narratives that they enact revolve around one another. There is a mutuality of sameness and differentiation. When Hamlet speaks, he speaks with the voice of the actor. When the actor speaks, he speaks for Hamlet. It is a story about circling back, and making the same mistakes better. It is about getting it right. 

And I think it is, in many ways, a story about the courage of a radical variety of love: The characters in Station Eleven make mistakes. They grasp too hard sometimes, and not hard enough at others, and I think that in this they offer us insight into how our relationships necessarily function. With those we love we’re never more free to transcend and we’re never more free to fall.

Finally, it serves as a reminder that even in a time of shocking, endless death, each person we lose presents another, smaller apocalypse. In the wake of that loss we are left with the challenge of continuing the story from that point, and of imagining the world we will create in the aftermath. 

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