We’re in the midst of the annual Canada Reads tournament, wherein a panel of defendants select their choice of Canadian book they believe can “shift our perspective.” At the end of each round, one book is eliminated until only one remains standing. This year, the 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is in the running even though it’s almost a decade old, which got me wondering what gives this particular post-apocalypse story such staying power. Of course, this story about the world after a flu pandemic was re-introduced to audiences through the excellent HBO adaptation in 2021 (yikes at that timing, though). And the apocalyptic genre has come rushing back into fashion through the popularity of The Last of Us, based on the video game (for the sake of ease, I will be referring to those mushroom-infested people as zombies). But I think readers (and audiences) can find some odd comfort in Mandel’s version of a ravaged future, the same way people connected with the emotional elements of The Last of Us. These works of fiction contend with the spectrum of humanity (including the good parts) in the face of existential crisis.
While I raptly watched each episode of The Last of Us, I couldn’t help but hope that the show would transcend the usual zombie trappings. And it did…sometimes. I’m not a gamer, so I suppose the plot structure is shaped by its devotion to the source material. In my opinion, the show was at its best when it was at its most specific (the cannibalistic Christian cult, for example, is the opposite of specific: weirdo church guy turns out to be a bad man? Who knew!). And it’s especially at its best when it bucks the expectations of the genre. There is a reason that the third episode, called “Long, Long Time” after the Linda Ronstadt song, was the most well-received by audiences and critics. After two episodes of stellar (but typical) zombie fare, “Long, Long Time” caught viewers off guard by spending an entire episode on a side character’s love story. This genre tends to be bleak and nihilistic, and puncturing that narrative with an unexpectedly sweet and moving—if only marginally relevant—side story was an unexpected but welcome detour.Continue reading