The End Is Not the End in ‘Station Eleven’

Emily St. John Mandel's book about the survivors of a devastating plague is a thoughtful and original take on the post-apocalyptic genre.

After a plague wipes out nearly the entire human population, and the electrical grid has crashed, one of the characters in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven notices the stars becoming brighter: “One of the great scientific questions of Galileo’s time was whether the Milky Way was made up of individual stars. Impossible to imagine this ever having been in question in the age of electricity, but the night sky was a wash of light in Galileo’s age, and it was a wash of light now.” Another character will muse on the nature of subatomic particles, and how they are “constantly vanishing and reappearing.”

Mandel is a lovely and careful writer who makes metaphors of facts, for their functionality as well as for their beauty. In her novel, the characters are the interconnected stars, though they vanish and reappear from each other’s lives or memories, and the process by which they re-connect offers a thread of hope in this sometimes sad, but never pessimistic novel.

Though she doesn’t know it, Kirsten Raymonde connects nearly all of the characters in the book. She is a player in the Traveling Symphony, a troupe that performs Shakespeare and classical music for the various settlements through which it passes. Kirsten was only eight at the time of the plague, and remembers very little of the world before, though she does clearly recall being onstage when famous actor Arthur Leander had a heart attack while playing King Lear.

Shortly before his death, Arthur gave Kirsten a set of comics called “Station Eleven”, about a space station designed to be like a small planet. Because of problems with the station’s functioning, the sun mechanism has stopped working correctly and the planet is forever trapped in either twilight or total darkness. Dr. Eleven, the comic’s hero, tries to forget “the sweetness of earth” as Kirsten strives to remember what it was like to walk into a room, flip a switch, and see the room become flooded with light.

Now, 20 years later, Kirsten and her group encounter a cult of people who call themselves “the light”. Their prophet takes young girls as wives and kidnaps hostages in exchange for weapons. In Kirsten’s chapters, Mandel takes us closer and closer to a reckoning between the Symphony and “the light”. In other chapters, we are taken back in time to Arthur’s life, to the life of his first wife, Miranda, and to the life of Jeevan, a paramedic who was at Arthur’s final performance and tried to save his life. We also see what happens to Arthur’s former best friend, Clark, who is stranded at an airport after the planes are all grounded.

With three previous novels to her name, Mandel manages these plot threads sure-handedly. Each character’s individual story has its own integrity, yet contributes meaningfully to the whole. Mandel’s aplomb comes through in her prose as well, which can be poetic but is also simple, as if she has nothing to prove.

It’s the kind of book whose subject matter is the stuff of science fiction, but whose focus steers it more in the direction of that broader designation, speculative fiction. For Mandel, the plague is less of an event in itself than a device for creating a certain set of problems for her characters. She is more concerned with how her characters are shaped by the new world.

There are fewer people in the world now, but the loss of technology means those that are left must depend on each other more closely than ever before. Even as they share a love of performing and a belief in the importance of beauty in a devastated world, the members of the Traveling Symphony experience the same frustrations any group of people thrown into close proximity would. On the inside of one of their caravans, someone has scribbled the quote, “Hell is other people.” (Someone wiser and more knowing of the ways of the world has crossed out “people” and written “flutes”.)

Mandel offers another twist on the post-apocalyptic novel through her refusal to make the end of civilization as we know it mean the end of the world altogether, or to make any one obstacle the all-or-nothing battle for survival. Again and again her characters’ experiences confirm that human troubles, though ubiquitous, are transitory. In this way, Mandel forgoes the standard dystopian drama of a struggle for survival in exchange for the thought expressed by the Symphony’s slogan, “Because survival is insufficient”.

It’s not whether her characters survive, because we know that at some point or other they will all die. No, Station Eleven is about how they’re going to live in the meantime.

RATING 7 / 10
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