Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is about a travelling Shakespearean theatre company set in post-apocalyptic America. You could call it speculative fiction or literary sci-fi, although Mandel herself calls it “literary fiction that’s set partly in the future.” Whatever the category, it’s an extraordinary book; compelling and spellbinding. I couldn’t stop reading, and when I had to put it down I longed to get back to the story.
Station Eleven begins with Arthur Leander, a famous actor who dies on stage during a performance of King Lear. That night, a deadly strain of flu sweeps across the world, and within two days 99% of the population is dead. Despite dying before the pandemic, the rest of the story centres around Arthur and the people in his life. The book moves back and forth between two worlds: the pre-collapse world of Arthur and his three ex-wives, and the post-flu world 20 years later.
The post-collapse world of Year 20 centres around Kirsten, an actress who witnessed Arthur’s death on stage when she was 8 years old. She works with the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel between settlements performing Shakespeare for the survivors. They use old pickup trucks, now pulled by horses, and displayed at the front of the caravan is a line from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient”, which stands as a thematic statement for the whole novel.
Life on the road isn’t easy: “…this collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, travelled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year…”, and to illustrate this, inside one of the trucks someone has quoted Sartre by scribbling “Hell is other people”, while somebody else has scratched out ‘other people’ and put “flutes”.
Kirsten and her friend August break into abandoned houses along the way to scavenge useful stuff for the Symphony, but she also searches for information about Arthur or anything connected with him. She doesn’t remember much about her life before the flu, but she remembers him because he was kind to her. Arthur gave Kirsten the graphic novel that she now carries everywhere with her.
The graphic novel is called Station Eleven and is about Dr Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station. The story in the comic acts as a metaphor for the action in the novel: a hostile civilisation from a nearby galaxy has taken over Earth and enslaved the population, but Dr Eleven and a few hundred others, stole the space station and disappeared through a wormhole, and are now hiding in deep space. The space station resembles a planet, and some of the people live in the Undersea in a kind of limbo and are desperate to return home to Earth.
The graphic novel was drawn by Arthur’s first ex-wife Miranda. She created it just for herself and never published it. Her art was a way to work out her problems and make sense of her life. There are only two copies, and both survived the collapse of civilisation (which may stretch credibility a bit, although it does make sense in context).
The story is woven in poetic layers of imagery to create meaning as you slowly discover more about the characters. The prose is evocative and haunting, exploring what it means to be human, what it means to be alive and how your choices come to define you. It’s about the connections between people and how they affect each other, sometimes in surprising ways.
The use of time can be disorienting. In the space of a paragraph you get a summary of somebody’s life spiralling out from that moment in the story, and then suddenly you’re back where you were a second ago in the present (usually the past in story terms). The effect unmoors you from the present but also shows how everything is connected, that you don’t exist in one place. You’re spread out, as if the different parts of your life have lives of their own.
There’s a stark contrast between the way people have to live to survive in the post-collapse world and how they lived before, but it’s clear Mandel believes the future way is preferable. In the pre-flu world the character’s lives are shown as lacking something essential: they’re in limbo, waiting for something, or distracting themselves with work and shallow entertainments. One of Clark’s corporate clients nails it when she describes people as “high-functioning sleepwalkers”; a statement that makes Clark want to weep.
Later Clark starts the Museum of Civilisation: a collection of things people like to remember from before the flu. These are mostly useless, like phones, laptops, and credit cards, but many people like to read the stories in old newspapers. In fact, the people who have the hardest time adjusting to the post-flu world are those who remember what it was like before: “the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”
Kirsten can’t remember what happened during the first year of the collapse and, in the end, decides she doesn’t want to remember. There’s a reason she’s so good at throwing knives. It’s never spelled out, but the implications and horror are obvious. This makes Station Eleven an unusual post-apocalyptic novel in that it doesn’t dwell on the usual fighting over dwindling supplies or the savagery of survival. The meltdown that happened following the deaths of billions of people is glossed over. There is horror and many of the characters are clearly traumatised. But the book rises above that and transforms the loss and heartbroken loneliness into something beautiful: a tale of how friendship and connection can heal the worst wounds over time.
Although the Travelling Symphony are always on the road, always moving, the novel sometimes has a kind of static feel to it, as if all these moments are suspended in time. Everything has changed and yet nothing changes. Life is always slipping away.
>Find out more about the book on Emily Mandel’s website
>See the whole Fantasy Reading List