Saturday, May 16, 2015
Station Eleven and global cooling
I recently read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which didn’t quite overwhelm me the way it has overwhelmed many others — though I liked it. It’s good, but it could have been great. The post-apocalyptic world is beautifully and convincingly rendered: I kept thinking, Yes: this is indeed what we would value, should all be lost. But the force of the book is compromised, I think, by its chief structural conceit, which is that all the major characters in the novel’s present tense of civilizational ruin are linked in some way to an actor named Arthur Leander who died just before the Georgia Flu wiped out 99.9% of the human race. This conceit leads Mandel to flash back repeatedly to our own world and moment, and every time that happened I thought Dammit. I just didn’t care about Arthur Leander; I didn't want to read fairly conventional realistic-novel stuff. I wanted to rush through all that to get back to the future Mandel imagines so powerfully.
All that said, I have one small thought, totally irrelevant to my feelings about the book as a whole, that keeps returning to my mind. In one of the book’s first scenes, a troupe of musicians and actors (the Traveling Symphony) is walking along an old road somewhere in Michigan, and it’s very very hot, over a hundred degrees. This is twenty years after civilization died, which makes me wonder: Would the world by then be any cooler? If all of our culture’s heat sources ceased functioning today — no more air conditioners emitting hot air, no more internal combustion engines, no more factories blowing out smoke — how long would it take before there was a measurable cooling of the world’s climate?