‘Station Eleven’

Station Eleven is a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, published in 2014. It’s a story formed by splicing together a before and an after, a future with a backstory. This device is very apparent in the novel, so much so that it feels like two novellas that have been joined together. One part of its duality lives in the ordinary pre ‘collapse’ world with the other half inhabiting a post-apocalyptic landscape (after a viral outbreak has wreaked havoc on society).

The novel begins with the style of a post-apocalyptic genre story but switches into character-based backstories with a distinctly literary fiction tone. This will delight some, and infuriate others. There are plenty of examples of science fiction written as literary fiction. The issue here is that the novel’s opening (and the book’s marketing) might confuse some readers into thinking that they’re getting something which they’re not. I think the key to writing literary fiction with genre fiction tropes is to make it clear from the opening that the story is primarily a literary fiction one. The obvious example of science fiction as ‘literature’ is 1984, but there are others like, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Machines Like Me. The key thing is not to make your reader feel like they’ve been tricked, and Station Eleven might have passed that line.

The novel is really an exploration of themes and subtexts about the grand myth of the person, ideas about artistic production, and the concept of an artwork being a document of a person’s life. Part of this (yet another duality) is described through the theatrical performance with the other half concerning the production of a graphic novel (from where the novel gets its name). The novel (albeit through an ironic and jokey Star Trek reference) describes the importance of art, and the sense that art makes life worth living.

The post-apocalyptic story is a metaphor for trauma, loss, loneliness, and crushed identities — memories of the old world are lost moments, lost lives, and vanished rituals. The future that’s presented in Station Eleven is one where the large conurbations have collapsed and been replaced by small towns, the new societal epicentre. The old world is linked to the new one by two characters who met during a theatrical production before the ‘collapse’ — now they perform in a travelling theatrical group. One of the small towns they perform in has been taken over by a cult. The threads between the old and new worlds mesh together cleverly but the link is somewhat tenuous and it didn’t really engage me.

After a tight opening setup, one that promises genre style action, Station Eleven defies expectations. This weird dichotomy will either seem like a refreshingly intelligent take on the ‘dumb’ post-apocalypse sub-genre, or the story failing to deliver on its opening promise. If you buy into its somewhat odd duality, you get a well written literary fiction story about loss, and the myth of the person — the potential disconnect between the person’s life and the outcome that supersedes them.