For more than a decade, Chicken Littles have been clucking that printed books would soon be relics of the past. As it turns out, however, the proverbial sky is not falling — quite the opposite, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study that found ink-and-paper tomes are still the favored mode among readers. That’s good news for the Santa Barbara Public Library, which each year hosts Santa Barbara Reads, a community offshoot of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read in which one book is selected, thousands of free copies are given out, and events and reading and discussion groups are formed so people can talk about what they’ve read. This year’s S.B. Reads selection was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a dystopian science-fiction story about a pandemic flu that kills off most of Earth’s population.
In an effort to engage the community even further, the Santa Barbara Independent teamed up with the library and held an essay contest for adults and teens. After culling through myriad entries, Maria Delgado and Lora Vachovska were chosen as the winners. The question they both wrote to was, “What would you miss if our modern-day civilization collapsed?” and rather than answer it literally, they injected themselves into the book’s setting. Here are the winning essays.
Maria Delgado (Adult)
If you lie flat in an open space and simply stare into the sky, for a second it feels like nothing has changed. The constellations are all still there, staring back. The blinking eyes of spectators waiting for the next scene of a play in which the actors fall lifeless on stage. I know I am not the only dreamer; I’ve caught a few of the other Origins doing it as well.
There had been prophecies of a New Order, and life was just a hobby that seemed the thing to do. Nothing taken seriously, whether one wanted to or not; no one was original anymore. We were mere reprints of old texts, remakes of ancient plays. Yet we were daily fed the belief that we were unique. False faith. I miss that.
When currency had value it seemed that such was all we lived for, even if it was nothing more than numbers in a bright screen. The more characters once created to depict the absence of value you had connected to your name, the more accomplished we believed to be. False security. I miss that.
With people it was different, though — the more people around us, the more they were expendable. The day the news broke out about the final extermination, some of us even had a second thought of who we wanted to be saved. As if it was even up to us. But when you have played God for so long, it’s hard to put your hat down at the end of the day. False ideology. I miss that.
The day came before most even believed of it coming. A day not different from any other in any calendar previously printed, with the two burning stars following their own circadian rhythm. And us, dancing our daily routines of minutes past the hour.
In failed attempts we tried to run, to seek refuge in a make-believe safe haven. At first we carried all we could. Slowed our travels only for greed, consoling ourselves after each raid by saying religiously, “He would have wanted me to have it.”
Time continued its race; those things became peripheral. Without campaigns, without people fighting one another or a no-longer-existent administration … all of a sudden, all lives mattered. That’s when we came to realize, the human race is all that is worth preserving.
The ones that were small enough not to remember that circus, the ones that were happy and content in our Ground Zero, they still had wonder in their eyes and hope in their hearts; they were baptized as Novus; more than once have I wished to be one of them. For they live today and wait for what tomorrow may have in store.
I can be found in a day long gone … or in a day filled with guilt for living a new day. For being able to lie in a quiet flat and stare at the sky filled with stars and believe nothing ever happened.
The year is 2113. Nothing is left. Buildings that once touched the stars lie in ruins of shattered glass and crumbled concrete support beams and bent steel frames. City streets have massive cracks running unevenly along the yellow meridian strip. Cars are flipped upside-down as if a child that had long since grown up had abandoned them. The car doors are smashed and roofs bent. Broken glass surrounds each vehicle like a shower of tears. If someone were to walk down the destroyed sidewalks, they would see shop windows that were burst through by people in a desperate attempt to save themselves. Some of the blinding neon signs still work, but their letters flicker and you can tell it won’t be long before the electricity dies out for good, too. The only noise is the wind. And you can still hear the screams it carries. The air is heavy with the final moments of civilization.
No one had expected the end to come so soon.
She stood in the middle of the street. Her hands were thin and fragile and looked skeletal. Her eyes were a gray void as she stared at the emptiness in front of her. The wind whipped her dress around, but she stood still. There was nothing else she could do. Everything, everyone, was gone.
She remembered growing up in the early 2000s; 2017 couldn’t have been all that long ago. She remembered it all. The weird obsessions with the internet and electronic devices. The corrupt societies. The ability to binge-watch a TV series in a week. Memes. How children would still sometimes play outside. Phases that parents called “rebellious,” when they were actually just realizing they “never had to be treated like garbage.” Schools that still used paper for learning. Hell, she remembered trees too. And then suddenly, one day there weren’t any. Artificial oxygen was made. The human race lived on. Until …
She missed it too.
Sure, the world was unethical and messed up. People would hate on each other because some had more melanin in their skin than others. Women were denied equal rights because they weren’t the “dominant gender.” Some people were forbidden to love each other. Love. Forbidden. How stupid had that been?
She chuckled at the thought and it came out as a brittle laugh in the abyss.
What she really missed, though, was the music and the laughter and the time spent with friends. The music had been able to connect people who otherwise had nothing in common. That’s how she’d met her best friend, after all. Laughter was usually the result of spending time with friends. Their giggling rang out in the cruel world like that moment when you finally understand how to do a math problem. They had been young, with nothing to lose, and had all the time in the world.
Except they didn’t. Not anymore. Because there was nothing left.