"What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty."
'Station Eleven' is a post-apocalypse novel about the importance of art, the fallibility of memory and the fragility of our existence. It tells the story of the Travelling Symphony, a nomadic Shakespeare company that tours the area around the Great Lakes twenty years after humanity has been decimated by an aggressive flu pandemic, performing plays and classical music to the surviving communities. However, due to its inventive nonlinear narrative structure, the book also spends a significant amount of time exploring its characters lives before the collapse of society. The book achieves a powerful sense of pathos and an appreciation for the wonders of the modern world by exploring what it would be like to lose all that. By exploring the way its characters' lives have woven around each other and interacted both before and after the collapse, it makes profound observations about individual perspective and the subjective nature of memory. At a time when the age-old conflict between genre and literary fiction has been rekindled, 'Station Eleven' is a triumphant example of how a writer outside of SF can combine SFnal tropes and ideas with literary techniques to enrich both forms.
One of the charges frequently leveled at literary fiction that plays with SF tropes is that non-genre writers are dilettantes who don't fully understand the ideas they're using or their history in the genre. One of the things I really liked about 'Station Eleven' was how Emily St. John Mandel has written a book that is tonally different from your standard post-apocalyptic SF, yet her appreciation of genre shines through. The Travelling Symphony's motto, written on their lead caravan and tattooed on Kirsten's arm, is "Survival is inefficient," which is taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. I like that a Shakespeare company can have a motto lifted from Star Trek, and it fits in with one of the themes of the book, which is that ultimately we decide what things hold significance for us, from the paperweight that different characters place different emotional weight on as it passes through their hands, to Clark's museum of iPhones and credit cards, a tribute to the lost technology of the old world.
Genre fiction raises its head as well in Station Eleven, the comic series being written by Miranda that gives the novel its name. In the comics, Station Eleven is a space station the size of a moon designed to look like a planet, on which a handful of escapees from the alien conquest of Earth live in a flooded twilight world. Miranda is a central character in the book, though she dies in the early stages of the flu pandemic. She ties together most of the other characters, from her relationship with Arthur Leander, the actor whose heart attack on the night of the flu outbreak kicks off the book, to Kirsten, an actor with the Travelling Symphony whose copy of Station Eleven is one of her few prized possessions. Station Eleven itself, with its eerie, deserted twilight world and its oppressed citizens longing to return to a world they can never get back, becomes a central metaphor for the characters' situation in the book. This is despite the fact that Miranda created Station Eleven purely as a passion project distinct from her job, and only ever vanity published it in a small print run. The point is that all art, as a form of human expression, is worthwhile, and that by its nature it resonates with people. From Station Eleven to Star Trek to 'King Lear', they were all created out of love and speak to the people who experience them; they are a coping mechanism for both the creator and the audience, and this is what makes them important.
'Station Eleven' has a nonlinear structure, its narrative split between the post apocalypse, the time immediately leading up to the collapse, and times in the characters' lives many years before. It also makes use of multiple viewpoint characters. The advantage of this approach is in the accumulation of detail from different perspectives; the characters interact before and after the end of the world, and we see different scenes through different eyes, fragments of old letter or articles revealed and completed in other characters' stories. In an SF novel, it would be unusual to spend so much time in a post-apocalypse novel before the actual apocalypse; we know what our world is like today, and that's not what we're interested in. With 'Station Eleven', the accumulation of detail and context serves to help us understand the characters better, giving more insight into their actions and decisions, why they choose to hold onto what they do. It also allows Mandel to illustrate the importance of perspective and the subjectivity of experience. As a novel of the apocalypse, it is necessarily about loss and regret, all the things that we take for granted in the world today gone forever. However in order to tease out what loss and regret really mean, it is necessary to turn to the context of individual experience. Arthur Leander's journey, from struggling small town actor to reluctantly famous star, forces him, like Lear, to think about the things he regrets - his numerous failed marriages, his inability to spend time with his son - and take stock of what's important. Similarly, the collapse of civilisation coincides with Clark's own soul searching, and provides Jeevan with a chance to start a more meaningful life. Ultimately, all of the characters' emotional journeys converge on the same thing that the apocalypse forces everyone to confront: with the loss of the life you know, what would you miss, what is important to you that you would keep, and what would you change?
A shallow reading of 'Station Eleven', with its troupe of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare in the ruins of civilisation, might accuse it of softness, a hopelessly naive vision of humanity. In most post apocalypse novels, culture is the first thing to go to the wall in the rush to bludgeon your neighbour with their own femur. 'Station Eleven' is an undeniably optimistic book, which one doesn't normally say about post-apocalypse fiction. Not only to people maintain their humanity in the face of total societal collapse, at the end, it's implied that one of the settlements has rediscovered electricity. It's hard to imagine an apocalypse more different than Ballard's stories of people's mental states regressing to reflect the ruined landscapes, or the string of awful yet totally rational decisions the protagonist takes on the road to hell to protect his family in John Christopher's 'The Death Of Grass'. However, while 'Station Eleven' doesn't dwell on the violence, it is most definitely still there. Mandel hasn't let her characters off the hook or taken the easy way out. Kirsten, August and the rest of the Travelling Symphony are people who have had to do horrible, violent things in order to survive, and suffered horrific violence in the process. They have come out the other side, and they still think that Shakespeare and classical music are worth preserving. There's something wonderfully inspiring and moving in that.