Station Eleven

Station Eleven novel by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014

I feel a sense of urgency to write about the best television series made to date, due to the impending arrival of an adjacent show that will be highly acclaimed, The Last of Us.

But Station Eleven was first. It was very much first. The book was published in 2014. The TV limited series debuted in 2021 into a very much fresh-pandemic world. (Limited series meaning that it only consists of 10 episodes, it’s not an on-going seasonal TV series.)

Stop me if this sounds familiar, Station Eleven deals with a global pandemic that ravages the world and changes the way humanity approaches daily life and forces everyone to ask “What’s valuable?” and “What keeps us alive?”

The author, Emily St. John Mandel is demure when asked about her talent for prophecy. “What becomes really obvious, if you research pandemics, is that there was always going to be another pandemic,” Mandel says. “It’s just something that happens in our history. There will be something else after Covid-19, and something else after that. It’s like if a novelist had written a novel in the sixties about a fictional war. Does that mean they predicted the Vietnam War? No—there was always going to be another war.”She told Esquire magazine in December of 2021.

When this TV series came out in December of 2021, I was not ready to watch it and I even questioned why anyone would watch such a heavy show for entertainment. 2021 was post-vaccine but a variant-heavy time for the world dealing with COVID. I hadn’t heard about the book at all. So this world-ending due to a pandemic show seemed too raw, too real for me, especially since I was not too many months away from my own life possibly ending.

From word-of-mouth and podcast recommendations, I gave it a shot by myself on a boring Sunday night in the fall of 2022. By 2022 kids were going to school without masks on, meet-the-teacher was back, and things seemed to be in a mode of recovery.  The first episode was so heavy I considered stopping. But like all good TV it introduced characters, and you found yourself becoming attached to them– it made you ask questions about their immediate future.

I think the thing that kept me going was that there was an unexpected calm moment in the first episode. And I needed to know more about that moment.  (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Spoiler alert: The “Georgia virus” (only named in the novel) introduced in Station Eleven is way worse and a lot more deadly than COVID.

Most of the time, TV and movie adaptions do not hold up to the experience of reading the book that serves as the source material. The adaption takes short-cuts, the characters are not allowed to develop as much, sometimes entire parts are left out, and everyone walks away saying “The book was better,” with much confidence.  (Unless you’re my children, it seems.)

That can’t be said about Station Eleven. It’s an experience that is wholly different and richer than the book.  It appears that the author doesn’t take this as a slight. “Honestly, I wish I’d thought of that,” she told Esquire regarding the connection and of two central characters in the TV limited series that are both on independent journeys and only have a short, chance meeting in the novel.  

The TV limited series also adds plot elements that enhance the characters introduced in St. John Mandel’s  novel. There is a whole backstory and moving plot with one of the characters that crystallizes a moment in the TV limited series that’s not in the novel.

As I’ve mentioned Station Eleven deals with a global pandemic and its aftershocks on the surviving population. When we say surviving people, we’re talking about 1% of people left. The characters have to make choices about how to survive and what brings meaning to the world, all the while it has the feel like they’re living-in-someone-else’s-house–they move and live in what’s left of a planet that was historically built for a large populace but now has little to no usable resources remaining.  This sounds gritty and difficult– and it is. The novel and adaption don’t hide that but it’s not agony on the audience. A theme among some of the survivors is the phrase “Survival is insufficient.” It’s a phrase that originated in a Star Trek TV episode, but some character choose it as a motto to live by, some even getting a tattoo of the phrase. The novel and TV series are not about just survival but what meaning looks like when the world has to begin again.

The characters are that lived through the on-set of the pandemic (known as year zero) are forced to reflect on a dead world and its former comforts and ease, along with their own regrets and reflections on the missteps of that time. The people born after year zero say that most of those survivors “lost their minds.”

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Mindfulness in gaming series 3: The Overstory

A character driven mystical novel about how trees really communicate with one another and the infinite complexity of nature

This book has come the closest to describing a mystical experience I myself had– which I think is nearly impossible to do since I think mystical experiences are ineffable.
But here’s the passage, which I think is simply beautiful. I don’t even think it needs any context.

A man in the boreal north lies on his back on the ground at down. his head extends from his one-man tent, facing upward. Five thin cylinders of white spruce register the breeze above him. Gravity is nothing. The evergreen tips stretch and scribble on the morning sky. He’s ever really thought about the many miles a tree travels, in smallest cursive increments, each hour of every day. Forever in motion, these stationary things.

The man with his head sticking out of the tent asks himself: What are those treetops like? They’re like the cog-toothed drawing toy, spinning out surprise patterns from the simplest nested cycles. They’re like the tip of a Ouija planchette, taking dictation from beyond. They are, in fact, like nothing but themselves. They are the crowns of five white spruces laden with cones, bending in the wind as they do every day of their existence. Likeness is the sole problem of men.

But the spruces pour out messages in media of their own invention. They speak through their needles, trucks, and roots. They cord in their own bodies the history of every crisis they’ve lived through. The man in the tent lies bathed in signals hundred of millions of years older than his crude senses. And still he can read them.

The five white spruces sign the blue air. They write: Light and Water and a little crushed stone demand long answers. Nearby lodge poles and jack pines demur: Long answers need long time. And long time is exactly what’s vanishing.

The black spruces down the drumlin put it bluntly: Warm is feeding on warm. The permafrost is belching. The cycle speeds up.

Farther south, broad leaves agree. Noisy aspens remnant birches, forests of cottonwood and poplars, take up the chorus: The world is turning a new thing.

The man rolls over onto his back, face-to-face with the morning sky. The messages swarm him. Even here, homeless, he thinks: Nothing will be the same.

The spruces answer: Nothing has even been the same.

We’re all doomed, the man thinks.

We have always all been doomed.

But things are different this time.

Yes, You’re here.

The man must rise and get to work, as the trees are already doing. His work is almost done. He’ll strike camp tomorrow, or the day after. But this minute, this morning, he watches the spruces writing and thinks, I wouldn’t need to be so very different for sun to seem to be about sun, for green to be about green, for joy and boredom and anguish and terror and death to all be themselves, beyond the need for any killing clarity, and then this- this, the growing right of light and water and stone– would take up all of me, and be all the words I need.

The Overstory, A Novel, Richard Powers

So it’s a character driven mystical book, based partly on the real life and research of Suzanne Simard— don’t get too attached to anything. Richard Powers kills more darlings than George RR Martin. But this book has a narrative and a character that has helped me reconcile my own link between a digital and physical love of nature. I’ve pondered before on how I could be so attracted to the digital when I also have a deep love and enjoy spending time in real, unfiltered nature / creation and how my role models include nature loving mystics like St. Francis of Assisi, Rumi, Buddha, and Christ.

20 minute TED talk but the stories about grizzly bear escapes and the revelations about how forest trees communicate make it worth it for sure.

The latest issue of WIRED magazine also ran a small feature on The Overstory, mentioning Suzanne Simard’s work.

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Mindfulness in gaming series 1: Why games make Us better and How they Can Change the World

Reality is Broken: Why games make Us better and How they Can Change the World

Reality is Broken: Why games make Us better and How they Can Change the World

…I’m healthy enough to get back to my ponderings.

I’ve been mulling this over for a while and I’m like to have a multi-part series on mindfulness and gaming (digital and non-ditigal). For the first part I’d like to share a book I read soon after my seizure called Reality is Broken (why games make us better and how they can change the worldby Jane Mccgonigal).

Cover of Reality is Broken by Jane McConigal (Why games make us Better and how they can Change the World)

For me, the title alone caused me to gravitate to it. As I’ve shared previously, the concept of my life (and death) went through a heavy overhaul after the seizure.

Why go into a topic like mindfulness and games– two subjects that seem at odds with one another? For me personally, I’d really like to reconcile my own gravitation to both. I think each is can be immensely helpful and both have helped me significantly in my own journey of healing, thus far.
On one hand, I have my love of nature through historical figures and some of my own mystical experiences. I’ve written before about how St. Francis and his unique bond with nature and how there is something mystical about dying slowly outside (St. Francis, Christ, and Marcus Aurelius are good examples) On the other hand, I still really enjoy games (digital and non-digital) and, the environment, the challenge, and the happiness they bring me– how do those fit together? For one thing, when you’re playing a game you are never alone. I’ve heard a game defined as

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

Bernard Suits

When you’re playing a game (even solo) you’re engaging with the designer of the game, people who have played the game before you, and in a way people who will play after you (think about high scores and leader boards.) This helps with the problem of the paradox of self-help (which I’ll get into later). After a lot of thought and reading, I have my own ideas but it’ll take a few posts to hash it all out. Not all of these posts will be easy to read, but some (like this one) will.

Part of my interest also came from a podcast I’d heard here as a guest on. If interested, I believe it was the Tim Ferriss podcast, link here.

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