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A collage of various pop culture and art works related to the post-apocalypse, including Station Eleven. Christina Animashaun/Vox

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A syllabus for a new world

Art reminds us that survival after apocalypse is insufficient.

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Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When the world ends, what happens next?

At the end of Lydia Millet’s apocalyptic novel A Children’s Bible, the younger brother of the teenage narrator asks her, “So what happens after the end?” They’ve just watched their world disappear; it’s an important question. She stops to think, then comes up with a reply:

Slowness, I bet. New kinds of animals evolve. Some other creatures come and live here, like we did. And all the old beautiful things will still be in the air. Invisible but there. Like, I don’t know. An expectation that sort of hovers. Even when we’re all gone.

You don’t wake up one morning to discover the apocalypse is over and a new world has begun. It’s slower and messier than that. We’re always living through one apocalypse or another, big cosmic reset buttons that mark the end of the world as we know it, but some are showier, more cataclysmic, than others. Right now, we’re suspended in several, our days mired in the slow-motion roll of climate change anxiety while the viral curve gyrates and the public square heads straight for a cliff. The day our world ends may only be visible to historians of the future.

To cope, we tweet about Elmo.

The future once was the place where small victories would lead to a better life for all. We imagined that in our old age, the world would be safer, smarter, healthier, more civil. Everything from political speeches to Star Trek showed us a future of bright hope, and for a while, we were sold on it. Now peering mere months ahead feels like squinting through smog. Matters like a future presidential election, post-graduation plans, the weather next winter — at best, hold them loosely. Things could get better, but it seems just as possible that they won’t.

The Prophet and Kirsten stoop by a stream. The image features lush greens and reds.
The post-apocalyptic future of Station Eleven.

So we watch other futures on TV. Last December, my husband I and started watching HBO’s extraordinary adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic Station Eleven. Scrawled at the top of my notes is a line repeated throughout the show: “Survival is insufficient.” It’s like a mantra, or a guidebook, or a flashing light showing the way to live in the world after it ends.

I’d first tuned into the show because someone said Station Eleven was like The Leftovers. Structurally, I could see the links; the episodes wrap around one another, shifting back and forth in time and space, painting the show’s reality with deliberate, textured strokes. And thematically, they play a duet. The Leftovers is a show about dealing with grief after losing someone. Station Eleven, set during an apocalypse and also 20 years later, is about living with the trauma of losing everyone, everything, an entire world. The characters call it “Day Zero pain.”

In December, as I started the show, a new wave of the virus that had interrupted our lives — less severe but more contagious — was sweeping across our city, casting our plans into limbo. It wasn’t about being scared anymore, but worried and frustrated and, in some ways, just really tired. Station Eleven starts with a (far more) deadly airborne virus sweeping the world and upending it overnight.

I remembered that.

Recently I found myself re-reading a “syllabus for the end of the world” that I constructed in April 2020. Back then, I was pawing through piles of books and art that seemed to promise at least some companionship, if not sense-making, in the isolating chaos.

The world didn’t end that year, or the next, not exactly. The death tolls are staggering, but most of us are still here, worse for wear, but we’re here. In those early pandemic months, we watched TV, read books, perhaps eventually rediscovered how wonderful it is to simply eat some French fries next to an old pal or stand with your feet in the ocean. I knew I’d been lucky. In the months since I wrote that syllabus, I finished writing a book, taught classes, saw my family, and remembered that a movie theater is a magical place. I found myself doing more than just surviving. In recent months, my life looked pretty normal.

But as things got better, I couldn’t shake my unease at a new age of dawning anxiety. The future had blurred out. Last year, I read A Children’s Bible, Millet’s climate change allegory released in 2020. It’s narrated by a youthful generation furious at their elders for drinking to forget and living frivolously while the great cataclysm loomed. Yet the children recognize that their parents, whose worlds disappeared in an apocalyptic flood, now feel existentially lost, paralyzed by displacement. “When their habitats collapsed they had no familiar terrain,” the child narrator tells us. “No map. No equipment. No tools. Just some melted guns strapped to their waists.” The adults remember what used to be, but can’t see the way forward.

Later, when the children manage to restrict their parents’ movements to a single house to minimize any further damage, I recognized a very recent version of myself in the description: “Their personalities were fading … for them time had turned fluid.”

I heard an echo in the last two chapters of Sally Rooney’s 2021 novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, whose conclusion unfolds in the form of emails between the two protagonists, Eileen and Alice, during a pandemic lockdown. “I have so completely lost any sense of linear time,” Alice writes to Eileen. “Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives? Time dissolving into thick dark fog, things that happened last week seeming years ago, and things that happened last year feeling like yesterday.” The inability to distinguish past from present, and thus to understand the future.

In Station Eleven, our main character Kirsten — a small girl when the apocalypse hit, now in her 20s and living with a traveling band of theater actors and musicians — is obsessed with a single graphic novel (also entitled Station Eleven) that she received as a gift in the “pre-pan” world, as they call it. In the book, an astronaut orbits above the earth, sitting apart from what’s happening below, and the things he says have stuck with Kirsten as a way to navigate her own strange existence. It’s her map.

One line that he repeats, and so she does too: “I remember damage.” He remembers the pain of his life down there. She too remembers her own “Day Zero pain.” In her post-pan world, another line from the comic reverberates: “I don’t want to live the wrong life and die.”

We, too, remember damage. As the new variant rolled across the city, and thus across social media, people started tweeting that it “felt like March 2020.” It didn’t, really, at least not on reflection. People could joke a little about testing positive, because now we had vaccines, and they took a bit of the terror out of things. There was plenty to be worried about, but the sirens weren’t continual, and we weren’t disinfecting groceries. Things were shutting down, but not in the same way or for the same reasons. Lives were still at risk, but in most cases, if your friend got sick but they’d had their shots, you didn’t have to be terrified for their life.

Still, we carry the Day Zero pain with us. Some acutely. It will be a long time — maybe past our lifetimes — before that’s not true. Before news of some new variant of an old disease doesn’t trigger panic. I have to look away from the words “the next pandemic.”

Even for the naturally hopeful, it’s hard to cling to hope. We don’t want to waste our years on the wrong life and then die.

Around the turn of the year, I saw a sentiment propagating across my Twitter feed: What fool would make plans for the new year, having lived through the past two? Isn’t that setting ourselves up for more misery? Dispositionally terrified of wasting my life, I watched myself do the same thing I did before: working through my feelings about the hazy future, the new world of uncertainty, with art.

That’s actually what Station Eleven is about: that in the space between the old world and the new, art endures. In this case, it’s the works of Shakespeare, reinterpreted and reorchestrated for an age without central governments or certainties, written by a playwright who lived his whole life centuries ago in the shadow of the bubonic plague. The traveling artists with whom Kirsten lives perform on a circuit, revisiting the same tiny villages year after year, bringing the old stories to fresh life. For them, the old plays with new music are ways to spark hope’s flame, to see their world and its emotional realities most clearly through art.

A black-and-white illustration of a crowd of protestors holding signs and chanting, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”
Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow.
Drawn & Quarterly

That act, seeing the world clearly, feels impossible. Some people seem so certain they know where things are headed; others are so sure that we ought only to wallow in the uncertainty and just survive. Reading Eleanor Davis’s incredible 2019 graphic novel The Hard Tomorrow, I recognized myself in the protagonist, who lives strung between her sincere desire to burn down what’s wrong in the world and a craving to retreat to the woods and build a life for herself and her family. She is torn between love and dread, worried that there’s not much point in carrying on.

I, too, am not certain of anything. Is this actually a uniquely terrible time? Or does it just seem that way because our memories are so short, because we are always trying to forget the past and are therefore continually surprised by the future? In Station Eleven, a mysterious young Prophet has memories of the “pre-pan” world so horrible that he tries, violently, to obliterate memories of the past. “There is no before,” he teaches his followers. There is only the uncertain now.

But real hope — not the kind politicians talk about, but the kind that keeps you alive — requires something other than violence and forgetting. To put it in Hannah Arendt’s terms, living well (perhaps living at all) requires amor mundi, or love of the world: the commitment to see the world not as we imagine it to be but as it really is, and to love it anyhow. Truly living means being willing to understand how we got here, and where we could go, to face our anxieties and agree together that mere survival is not sufficient.

Art can give us binoculars to see in both directions. (Arendt dubbed art an “oasis,” a place to catch our breath and replenish our souls.) So, I read Octavia Butler’s late ’80s sci-fi trilogy Lilith’s Brood (originally dubbed Xenogenesis), set hundreds of years after mankind nearly wiped itself out in a nuclear war. Humankind was rescued by a race of aliens called the Oankali, who swept them off the planet and started regenerating both it and the human race, seeking a way to keep them from doing the same thing in the future.

The novels wrestle with what Butler terms “the human contradiction,” summed up in one of the volumes, Imago, by one of the Oankali: “You’re bright enough to live on your new world, but you’re so hierarchical you’ll destroy yourselves trying to dominate it and each other. You might last a long time, but in the end, you’ll destroy yourselves.” Humans are brilliant creatures, but their lust for power, for creating inequalities, will always lead them to ruin — that’s the human contradiction. Butler saw this clearly, and wrote fiercely to discover whether it was, in the end, conquerable.

I’m not sure if the Lilith’s Brood series is post-apocalyptic or a genesis story, and whether there’s any difference. Science fiction writers often toy with how the human contradiction means in every end is our beginning, and every beginning contains its own end. Walter Miller’s 1959 classic A Canticle for Leibowitz envisioned, in the midst of the Cold War, a distant future in which humanity, having also destroyed itself with nuclear war in the ancient past, goes through the patterns of scientific rediscovery and subsequent re-destruction over and over. Frank Herbert’s vision of humanity in the Dune books, involving an ancient Matrix-like war with machines leading to a civilization that nonetheless is susceptible to the rise of a powerful genocidal leader, sees the same. So does the mid-aughts TV series Battlestar Galactica, in its repeated prophecy: “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”

Our recorded history is too short, so far, to tell us if they’ll prove to be right. But if we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes in epoch after epoch, there’s some strange comfort in looking backward. Perhaps that’s why the malice distinctive to our age — the internet’s pulsating drive toward immediacy, toward what Bo Burnham dubbed “a little bit of everything, all of the time” in his 2021 special Inside — is bent on making us forget what happened last week, let alone five years ago.

We’re all trapped in a hot, airless room with one another, suspended in a contextless eternal present, and with us there’s a malicious force trying to wipe out our ability to find hope in history.

A silhouette of Burnham singing, lit in purple and pink.
Bo Burnham in Inside, his pandemic-produced Netflix special.

In her 2021 novel No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood recreates with uncanny accuracy the feeling of “Internet brain”: the scattered, fragmented, hiccuping consciousness Burnham sings about. But a tragic event in Lockwood’s narrator’s life — you might even call it apocalyptic — interrupts that internet brain and brings it back to concrete reality. “Would it change her?” she wonders of the tragedy’s effects on her own soul, as she watches the earth beneath her from a plane. It seems it has; it’s reminded her that she’s not just a brain on the internet, but she’s a human with a body, part of a long history of human civilizations that have endured tragedies and cataclysms and lived on to tell the tale in a new world. At the end of the book, after giving a lecture in the British Museum, she imagines wandering through its halls with a baby:

She was cracking open the glass case of amulets and hanging every limb of her with protection, protection. She was standing in the hall of the Assyrian lions and assuring her that we would not be devoured, she was carrying her, carrying her, stopping at every fountain and letting her drink, from prehistory to the modern age, to the moment of them standing there together, marveling: more and more I begin to feel that the world is conscious.

Writers are always grappling with an uncertain future. The last time things felt this hazy for me, I was a college freshman, and 9/11 had just happened. Everything I thought I knew about the world, from my secure and stable life, now was in question. The world had ceased to make sense, as much as the adults in charge tried to give us simple explanations for why this had happened and why we must all agree to support a violent counterattack. Joan Didion wrote of that time that “as if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the event itself.” Meanwhile, we did not know whether we had a future.

Were things uniquely bad then? In some ways. But I also imagine this was the same feeling that the children who lived through the 1918 pandemic or World War II or the shadow of potential nuclear war felt — every generation alive has experienced its own apocalypse. I recognize now Didion’s description of that time’s “entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance.” We’re doing it again.

At the end of A Children’s Bible, the narrator’s brother, who asked what happens after the end, isn’t satisfied with his sister’s explanation, her promise that maybe the beautiful world will outlast them. He’s agitated: “But we won’t be here to see them. We won’t be here. It hurts not to know. We won’t be here to see!”

“Others will, honey,” she says to him. “Think of them. Maybe the ants. The trees and the plants. Maybe the flowers will be our eyes,” she says. A moment later, she says, “Maybe art is the Holy Ghost. Maybe art is the ghost in the machine.” She continues explaining — imagining, really — that art is the spirit that will keep the world going, as nature reblooms. “The clouds the moon. The dirt the rocks the water and the wind.” All of the world continuing on beyond us: “We call that hope, you see.”

“Listen little sister / angels make their hope here / in these hills,” bell hooks wrote in her 2012 poem “Appalachian Elegy,” which speaks of “the promise of resurrection” in the land.

In Rooney’s novel, Eileen responds to Alice, in the process disclosing that she, unexpectedly, is pregnant, and trying to figure out how she feels about bringing a child into the world, and realizing that maybe her own procreation isn’t the point here:

Neither you nor I have any confidence that human civilisation as we know it is going to persist beyond our lifetimes. But then again, no matter what I do, hundreds of thousands of babies will be born on the same day as this hypothetical baby of mine. Their futures are surely just as important as the future of my hypothetical baby.

“We have to try either way to build a world they can live in,” Eileen continues, saying that she wants to be “on the children’s side.” This sounds like Wendell Berry’s exhortation, in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” to resist the commodified, productivity- and profit-driven life in favor of something far more lasting:

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit …

“Of course, everything is terrible at the moment,” Eileen writes to Alice. She misses “parties and book launches and going to the cinema,” but has hope that her real life will return. “All that really means is that I love my life, and I’m excited to have it back again, excited to feel that it’s going to continue, that new things will keep happening, that nothing is over yet,” she writes.

For Kirsten, there are no book launches or cinema, but nothing is over yet either; one of the joys of Station Eleven is how, in an unusual way, it envisions life after apocalypse as something that could be more than mere subsistence. Survival is insufficient. Damage doesn’t go away, but art and love and dancing and stories endure. Octavia Butler imagined a similar world in the final Lilith’s Brood installment (and in many of her other novels), one that’s rife with challenges and seeded with danger but still worthy of planting new villages and families and moving onward.

This is, for me, where I find my anxieties coming to rest. I have no idea what the future looks like, and must rely on artists to imagine it for me. I don’t have children, but there are plenty around me, and around the world, and they will have to keep living no matter what happens to my own city and country and life. Hope lies in resisting the way the internet and the profiteers are trying to cut off my ability to look backward and forward, to decouple from the “world in my hand” that Burnham sings about. To not box myself into a packed virtual panic room filled with people opining in despair; to not let myself sink into the same nihilism. To not get trapped into confusing productivity for real life: “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary / some in the wrong direction,” Berry writes. To love not an idealized world, but the real thing, whatever it looks like next.

In her 1995 poem “Burning the Old Year,” Naomi Shihab Nye concludes, “Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves, / only the things I didn’t do / crackle after the blazing dies.” Survival is insufficient. I don’t want to live the wrong life and die. “In my end is my beginning,” T.S. Eliot wrote, from the midpoint of World War II. In a broken, messed-up, cracked-up world, the unseen future beckons us to live on.

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