We live in a world of fast-moving moral panics. A world where information moves literally at the speed of light, crossing oceans and wrapping the world in mere moments. Technology connects us all, but it is also a tool, willing or unwilling, that embeds in us a fear of the world we live in. Turmoil in a country thousands of miles away plasters our social networks, convincing us that our own corner of the world is meant for similar fates, though even ten years ago we would not have heard rumblings of the news for hours, fifty years ago it might have taken days, and before that weeks, years. Information and panic sweeps through us as quickly as keystrokes are entered into a social network.
What if an deadly illness moved that so fast? What if it was as bad as we all feared? What if it was worse?. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven ponders that question. An illness sweeps through a society wracked by their own fears and doubts. The world that awaits the few survivors, a world without advanced technology, societal borders, and laws, is recognized not for what it promises but for what was lost. “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth,” opines Dr. Eleven, a comic book character who dwells on the titular space station, early in novel. Regret lies heavy at the heart of Mandel’s post-apocalyptic tale. But, beside it — a beacon of hope — is nostalgia.
I was thinking about the island. It seems past-tense somehow, like a dream I once had.”
Arthur Leander, Station Eleven, p. 155
But where there is regret, hope also lingers.
In Station Eleven, Mandel is playing in a science fictional sandbox insomuch as she’s envisioning the societies of a post-apocalyptic Earth, but she leaves many of the genre’s toys to other others. Toys over-complicate issues, and so Mandel leaves them behind for only the most basic of tools: sand and water, character and environment.
Station Eleven follows two main narrative threads: Kirsten and the Travelling Symphony in the post-Georgia Flu world, and Arthur Leander during his rise to fame as a preeminent Hollywood actor. Throughout the novel, Mandel lays delicate parallels between Arthur’s journey from the small island of Delano in British Columbia to the lights of Hollywood, and the change forced on humanity by its decimation by the flu.
“I was thinking about the island,” Arthur writes to an old friend. “It seems past-tense somehow, like a dream I once had.”1 Before his slow introduction to Hollywood and New York City — to the terrifying vastness of stardom — Arthur begins life in a small, isolated community where the outside world may as well not exist, before his slow introduction to Hollywood and New York City, to the terrifying vastness of stardom. His whole adult life is spent adjusting to fame and life in the public eye.
I walk down these streets and wander in and out of parks and dance in clubs, and I think ‘once I walked along the beach with my best friend V., once I built forts with my little brother in the forest, once all I saw were trees’ and all those true things sound false, it’s like a fairy tale someone told me.
Station Eleven, p. 155
Then, as though Hollywood Arthur were deposited back on his home island, with no provocation or desire, and asked to adapt to that isolated life, the post-Georgia Flu world is humanity deposited onto a million Delano Islands, scattered groups isolated by the sudden enormity of their empty world. “I stand waiting for lights to change on corners in Toronto,” Arthur finishes in his letter to his friend, “and that whole place, the island I mean, it seems like a different planet.”
Mandel avoids the temptation to play prophet of the apocalypse in Station Eleven. She doesn’t write her novel as a warning against global warming, political radicalism, or alien invasion. She doesn’t scream “The end is nigh!” between the lines of her narrative. Instead, she focuses on the changing of the world, the changing of human culture in the wake of its near destruction. Station Eleven is much more interested in focusing on the small, personal stories of the survivors and their ability to adapt to new surroundings — a new world — than in judging humanity for failing itself.
No more diving into pool of chlorinated water list free from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. […] No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through the litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.
Station Eleven is about the effects and privileges removed from modern society. No longer can we hide behind the avatars that we have constructed for ourselves, instead we’re naked and true. Mandel asks the reader to consider how life might change if they were forced to throw away their ability to hide behind life’s conveniences, to start over in a society that remembers the privilege of the past but must live only in its shadow. In that shadow, some are less lonesome than they were before — some find a home. For others, it is not so easy to let go of the past.
But one cannot simply draw a line in the sand between those caught in the past and those who embrace the future. The past undeniably intrudes upon the present, informs the future. This is something that is true for all of us, from the most nostalgic to the most forward thinking. How we let those events gone by manipulate our personalities and actions is the difference between the past living on and fading away like a dream upon waking. Mandel’s novel explores all of these various relationships between Dickens’ ghosts.
“I dreamt last night I saw an airplane,” Dieter whispered.
“I haven’t thought of an airplane in so long.”
“That’s because you’re so young.” A slight edge to his voice. “You don’t remember anything.”
“I do remember things. Of course I do. I was eight.”
Dieter had been twenty when the world ended. The main difference between Dieter and Kirsten was that Dieter remembered everything. She listened to him breathe.
“I used to watch for it,” he said. “I used to think about the countries on the other side of the ocean, wonder if any of them had somehow been spared. If I ever saw an airplane, that meant that somewhere planes still took off. For a whole decade after the pandemic, I kept looking at the sky.”
“Was it a good dream?”
“In the dream I was so happy,” he whispered. “I looked up and there it was, the plane had finally come. There was still civilization somewhere. I fell to my knees. I started weeping and laughing, and then I woke up.”
Station Eleven, pp. 133-134
In all ways, those memories are the difference between characters who can move on from the past, see the opportunity in the new world, and those that are passively waiting to wake from their nightmare. By setting her story in a world that’s at once trying to create a new future for itself, while still nostalgic for its stolen past, Mandel creates a speculative playground that has a level of delicacy and nuance often missing from post-apocalyptic narratives.
“If hell is other people, what is a world where almost everyone was gone?” muses Kirsten as she watches a deer cross a road slowly being reclaimed by nature. The empty landscape through which the Symphony travels through is a stark contrast to pre-Georgia Flu Earth, to Aurthur Leander’s cocaine-fueled Hollywood, or Jeevan’s chaotic tumble from one career to another. It is quiet and vast, peaceful, and in slow recovery from the blight of humanity’s spread across its surface. Woven throughout the narrative is an underlying challenge to the common and self-centred perception that the end of the world is synonymous with the end of the human race. “Perhaps soon humanity would simply flicker out,” Kirsten concludes, but she finds such a thought more peaceful than sad.
The world’s become so local, hasn’t it?
Setting a story pre- and post-pandemic might not be a wholly original plot construction, but Mandel wields the trope with a skilled hand, playing the bifurcated story elements off one another and luring the reader into a false sense of comfort before pulling the rug out from under them. To understand the future that Mandel crafts, the reader must also grasp the present as the author conceives it. What she says about a post-Georgia Flu Earth speaks loudly about the present day we live in.
What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. […] And no in a twilight once more lit by candles, the age of electricity come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king. “Therefore the moon, the governess of floods, pale in her anger, washes all the air, that rheumatic diseases do abound.”
Against type, Station Eleven is not a post-apocalyptic novel about the end of the world, about the horrors of humanity when it returns to its basest of states. It is a novel about the light that pervades through centuries, those parts of humanity that exist because as a race we are able to act outside of our instincts, and make beautiful things in the quiet times between fighting for survival and taming the world around us. The Travelling Symphony moves from community to community bringing music and laughter, reminiscence and wonder to the survivors, to those who need hope most.
That is not to say that there isn’t a certain bleakness to Station Eleven. Through delicate and often poetic prose, Mandel illustrates a world of desperate people shored up in communities guarded by snipers who shoot anything (or anyone) that moves on sight, of cults, and abandoned Walmarts; but the natural world is still healthy — free from mass agriculture and greenhouse gases, deforestation — and the bleakness is not relentless. Instead, there are moments to breathe, suggestions from Mandel that the near end of humanity is not the same as the apocalypse. Some of the novel’s most despairing events occur during its quietest, most intimate moments in the world before the Georgia Flu arrives.
When one can come to grips with the world that Mandel illustrates, then the challenge becomes not accepting that the world has ended — that civilization has collapsed — but that the privileged have been toppled and cast among the unprivileged. There exist today living conditions that mirror any and all the exist in Mandel’s novel, and so we see ourselves in the post-Flu world.
Station Eleven should be on every bookshelf.
Station Eleven is a tremendous achievement of character and speculation, a gorgeous examination of life before and after a moment in history that challenges humanity to be better, to grow from its most despairing moment into something stronger and more beautiful than before. Mandel poses an impossible question: Is this post-apocalyptic Earth worse off than what came before? To challenge readers in such a way, to take a tired genre and tilt it just to the point that its beauty begins to show through the grime, proves that Mandel is one of our most thoughtful and elegant writers.
The last time a novel created such an intense reaction in me was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. It’s quiet and riveting, beautiful in its optimism, and avoids so many of the general cliches of post-apocalyptic fiction, while still subverting its tropes in interesting ways. Gorgeous all around, Station Eleven should be on every bookshelf — creased and worn, dog-eared and well-loved.
- Station Eleven, p.155 ↩