Thursday, October 29, 2015

Station Eleven and the Fate of the English Major When Society Collapses

Warning, this post contains very modest spoilers associated with the novel Station Eleven by Emily Mandel. They are not much of a spoiler, but you are warned.

One artifact of science fiction becoming mainstream is that one has to deal with reviewers and even readers who have not had the benefit of knowing the genre, those who have not submitted to the discipline required to truly understand faster than light travel, telepathy, multi dimensional time portals and a host of other topics.  These mainstream critics may thus not be qualified to understand the field and its conventions. It can lead to some unfortunate encounters such as when a fellow undergraduate at college once said "You should read Pynchon, he writes science fiction that is actually good" and I thought to myself, I will probably hate Pynchon.  Well, I did not hate Pynchon, nor do I hate Station Eleven by Mandel, but it is not great science fiction despite what the reviews say.   But Station Eleven did have an unexpected benefit.  Although it was not intentional on the part of the author it alerted me to a terrible danger facing this nation as it awaits the inevitable collapse of civilization.

Station 11 is the highly acclaimed fourth novel by Emily Mandel about the world after a pandemic. It has its moments. I might give it a sold B- or so, but never, ever the acclaim that it is getting. The point of this post is not to review the novel per se, but to report to you an unexpected weakness that could inhibit our recovery from the type of disaster the novel describes.

You see, one of the unintended subtexts of the novel is to reveal just how powerless and incompetent a bunch of liberal arts majors are without their internet. This was not an intentional theme of the author, rather it is an accident that is revealed by the author's (and the reviewer's) ignorance of what would be possible technologically even in the absence of electrical power, the internet, and high octane gasoline. This is apparently a disaster novel written by an English major. Very good at crafting paragraphs but not too bright when it comes to technology about which she clearly knows almost nothing.

So now two light spoilers although the first one isnlt much of a spoiler since you probably can not get through the first two pages without figuring it out.

Spoiler number one: Station 11 is set in a near future where 99.9 percent of humanity has died of a particularly infectious and fatal form of the flu. You can be infected by being around someone who already has it, no direct contact is necessary, and anyone who gets it is dead within a few days which is presumed to be long enough to infect everyone else. The end result is that within about a month pretty much everyone is dead. The people who do survive have to go out to the country to find food and create the setting for the rest of the novel.

In our second spoiler, we reveal that people are reduced to bows and arrows and it is a major plot point that some unknown people have actually recreated a small electricity grid. Technology you see has completely gone away and we are back to perhaps Late Antiquity or so. In other words, people know about horses, wheels, and plows, but can only dream of having a refrigerator or an electric light.

This is what comes of a deficient education system. This is what comes of having children raised on the Internet and reality television.

You see, seeing as how this is set in the near future, Toronto and the state of Illinois, where our plot mostly takes place, has something called a library. Probably every small town has one. And in this library are books. And down the street, now abandoned, are machine shops. And yes, while the rotary tools might very well be powered by electricity that is not immediately available, there are other ways to use those tools even without electrical power.

First, build one of these and use it to distill alcohol... 

Then go to your local abandoned hardware store and pick up one of these....

On top of that, it is not so hard to build a steam engine out of all the spare parts left around after everybody dies. One could easily build water driven devices and steam engines even without electricity or gasoline. A handy stream and some wood will do. And they can be rigged to drive a magnet with wire (which is lying around after the apocalypse in every building) and you have an electrical generator.

If you want to repurpose any of those millions of abandoned automobiles, where, you might wonder, would the gasoline come from since the story has established that gasoline went away through evaporation in a few years?

Well, not all engines run well on alcohol, but many can be tuned to run acceptably well.   Many engines such as one finds in things like portable power generators, available and in stock at your local hardware store, are made to run on a variety of fuels.  Even more useful, but more specialized and less immediately available, are belt driven generators which can use a variety of motive forces.  This is something that could be easily interfaced to a water wheel or wind mill.

Here is an article on converting your car to run on alcohol and how to distill your own by Mr. Keat Drane. See  This article is filled with interesting information about the history of fuels to power engines, and how to distill your own fuel.

The great American philosopher, Clint Eastwood, said that “A man has got to know his limitations” (1) and very clearly Ms. Mandel does not know what she does not know.

But Mandel has done us a favor and just in the nick of time. She has alerted us to the complete ignorance so many of our citizens have about how the basic things in their life work.  We can not choose who will survive the inevitable destruction of civilization, and if they are all English majors then we would have a second disaster on our hands. 

I hope you will join me in petitioning our public servants to create remedial education programs, programs which must be made mandatory for all English majors, to correct this dangerous knowledge gap before it is too late.

Station Eleven by Emily Mandel on


1. This is from Magnum Force, and Mr. Eastwood was being sarcastic.

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