Books

Does the end of the world look different from a female perspective? 

As Emily St John Mandel picks up a major award for Station Eleven, we examine the post-apocalyptic worlds of women writers 

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By David Barnett on

Apocalypses, by their very nature, are rubbish. And that goes double if you're a woman.

It seems that in countless Mad Max-style post-collapse-of-civilisation scenarios, women tend to be little more than commodities, like food, water and fuel, to be fought over, bartered and claimed by marauding gangs of men who, somewhat inexplicably, often dress in leather bondage gear.

Which is why it was so refreshing to read Emily St John Mandel's astonishing novel Station Eleven, which last night deservedly won the best novel gong in the Arthur C Clarke Awards for science fiction literature.

Mandel, from British Columbia, is the twelfth woman to scoop the award (the very first one was given to Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid's Tale, while last year's winner was American author Ann Leckie). Station Eleven, Mandel’s fourth novel, is set in the aftermath of a virulent plague that wipes out most of humanity – the Georgia Flu, which kills in 48 hours and devastates the planet in a matter of days.

Where Station Eleven deviates from the tired old cliches is that it posits a future not of bleak savagery and endless battle for survival, but rather of hope and preservation not just of life but of art.

Twenty years after the outbreak, the main character Kirsten has an itinerant lifestyle in the countryside around Toronto, living with the Travelling Symphony which visits the scattered outposts of the fractured remains of humanity and performs for them Shakespeare plays. It is both bleak and beautiful. The world will never be the same, yet culture endures and, ultimately, so does hope.

Andrew M Butler, chair of the Clarke Award judging panel, said last night: “While many post-apocalypse novels focus on the survival of humanity, Station Eleven focuses instead on the survival of our culture, with the novel becoming an elegy for the hyper-globalised present.”

It does seem that it takes a woman writer to not only place women characters at the centre of the apocalypse without them being mere chattels or imperilled plot drivers, but also to offer a fresh perspective on the traditional chest-beating "fight for survival".

These women all devastated their worlds with a plague or virus – how different from the phallic, thrusting nuclear missiles

 

Sandra Newman's The Country of Ice Cream Star, published a couple of months before Station Eleven, in June last year, is another expectation-confounding woman-centric post-apocalypse novel. A little bleaker and more fantastical than Mandel's, perhaps – Newman's apocalypse is also virus-led, this time a disease that kills everyone when they hit the age of 20 – it is nevertheless almost a companion piece in that it also offers hope through the eyes and actions of a female protagonist, the titular Ice Cream Fifteen Star.

And alternative apocalypses envisaged by women are by no means a modern thing. Pat Murphy's wonderful The City, Not Long After was published in 1988 and is set in San Francisco in the aftermath of a devastating plague. Survivors have created a veritable hippy utopia where they don't make war, they make love... and, like Mandel's Travelling Symphony, they devote their lives to art.

Mandel, Newman and Murphy all devastated their worlds with a plague or virus – how different from the phallic, thrusting nuclear missiles raining armageddon on us in the brutal apocalypses so beloved of male writers.

That's not to say there isn't danger and jeopardy in these books – there is, of course, and by the bucketload. But challenges are met from female perspectives, and turn these books away from being just macho fantasies of unfettered freedom in a world without rules.

It's said that if women ruled the world, there would be no wars. Maybe if women ruled the end of the world, there might also be hope for the future.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is published by Picador in paperback

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