Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Updated: Sep 12
Since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before, people have told tales of catastrophes that sweep through the world and destroy the majority of humankind, leaving only a few to start again. Such stories are so common that they have their own literary genre: post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction. Dystopia is the opposite of Utopia, a thoroughly nasty society created out of the worst side of human nature. Think The Hand Maid’s Tale or 1984. Post-apocalyptic means after the end of the world. They are also depictions of a grim and hostile place, where humanity’s worst side comes to the fore. Post-apocalyptic is often a misnomer, since, in many books categorized this way the world doesn’t end, only most people in it. Much as I hate to propose a new literary genre (I detest the whole business of literary genres) I think after-the-deluge would be a better name for books that describe a world following a major catastrophe that has wiped out most people. After all, the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of the earliest of such stories.
Emily St. John Mandal wrote Station Eleven after SARS but before COVID. In it she imagines what happens if most people suddenly die from a virulent form of flu. She differentiates what she is doing from end-of-the-world stories by incorporating a graphic novel that does tell of the end of the world. Station Eleven the graphic novel is a story within a story. The world is gone. The new home is divided into hostile sections. The hero looks over the waters and mourns his lost planet. The graphic novel throws the actual novel into relief. The graphic novel feeds our love of imagining a dangerous place, from the safety of our couch; our obsession with asserting that the world is heading for disaster.
Although Station Eleven the actual novel depicts missing people, searches for scarce resources and conflict with hostile bands, these tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre are not what it is about. It is about what happens to a particular group of people, connected in one way or another to the person who starts the story, Arthur Leander, a movie star performing a stage production of King Lear at the time that the flu hits.
The opening scene is in a theatre in Toronto and the story proceeds largely in the area of the Great Lakes. I recommend studying a map of the Great Lakes before you get too far in. It will help enormously with picturing the collapsed world that the characters find themselves journeying through. In the wreck of this world, people are surviving as much on what they can scavenge and re-purpose as on what they can create. This is where the author has to convince you that her vision is plausible, that her world is coherent. How much has changed in twenty years and how much remains? What is adapted when there is no more electricity, or water in the taps? What is used for transport? For heat? She does it vividly, describing old pickup trucks stripped of their engines and pulled by horses in such a way that you can see them trundling along the pot-holed remains of the road, the last of their paint peeling away in the summer’s heat.
Because Emily St. John Mandel is showing human nature that doesn’t morph into a world divided between violent good guys and violent bad guys, she has to give the reader back story. She does this with great skill, slipping easily from place to place and from time period to time period. These people, in the twenty years after the flu, are the same people as before the flu, with the same drives. Musicians and artists band together into a traveling symphony. A paramedic becomes the go-to person when people are sick. A young man raised to believe he was saved for a reason becomes the leader of a murderous cult. In this world one has to be tough. The people who do embrace violence are real, but unlike dystopian novels, the daily occupation of most is not either heroic opposition, futile resistance or miserable survival. For most, it is living the best life they can. Just like us.
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