The hackneyed approach to the post-apocalyptic story is to spin a nightmarish and desperate tale, usually set in the immediate aftermath of civilization’s fall, depicting the day to day struggle for survival. The tropes by now are shopworn. The dregs of humanity’s final remnants, shuffling through their hopeless existences dressed in rags, killing one another savagely over dwindling food and other resources. Inevitably, survivors split into two symbolic camps: those representing Hope and Goodness, and the other, typically led by some opportunistic, power-mad warlord, threatening Evil and Destruction upon them all.
So ingrained is this formula in the minds of audiences that many critics who ought to know better have taken Emily St. John Mandel to task for not turning Station Eleven into merely the latest post-apoc horror epic to mimic The Stand or The Road or The Postman. (Though interestingly, Mandel does name-check Justin Cronin's The Passage.) Most of the post-collapse scenes in Station Eleven are set around two decades after the event that ends it all for us, a Captain Trips-like mutant superplague known prosaically as the Georgia Flu that kills within hours. This gives us a scenario in which survivors have long since settled into the routines of their new lives. It’s not fully clear whether the survivors were immune, or just lucky not to have crossed paths with any infected, or a combination of the two. But the book isn’t trying to be The Andromeda Strain either. Instead, Mandel has fashioned a story about the connectedness of people to one another, and about the redemptive power and therapeutic necessity of art to our lives.
The story begins in gripping fashion, on a cold, rainy night at a Toronto theater, where a performance of King Lear is cruelly interrupted when its leading man, aging movie idol Arthur Leander, keels over and dies onstage of a heart attack. As the crowds shuffle out, no one knows that at that very moment, passengers from a recently-arrived overseas plane are being wheeled into hospital emergency rooms, where some are already dying.
Once all this establishment is out of the way — and Mandel handles it with an absolutely expert hand at slow burn suspense — the novel then proceeds through what’s known in Hollywood as a mosaic narrative. We bounce back and forth in time, covering multiple viewpoint characters’ lives prior to and after the disaster.
A chief protagonist is Kirsten Raymonde, whom we meet in the prologue as an 8-year-old actress with a small nonspeaking role in the ill-fated King Lear performance, and whom we learn had befriended Arthur during the play’s rehearsal period when he had given her two comic books titled Station Eleven drawn by one of his ex-wives. Years later, in her early 20’s, Kirsten now roams the post-collapse Great Lakes region as part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who go from settlement to settlement putting on Shakespeare plays in exchange for food and whatever else. It’s the philosophy of the troupe’s leaders that people “want what was best about the world,” and Kirsten’s own motto for the troupe, “Survival Is Insufficient,” is a line remembered from an old Star Trek Voyager episode. Still, at least one member of the troupe feels they need new drama for a new age, and has made a tentative stab at writing her own play.
In the pre-collapse scenes, we learn mostly of the life shared by Arthur Leander and his wife Miranda, who, to put it mildly, was not prepared for the life of nonstop paparazzi and tabloid salaciousness that comes from being married to a movie star and spends the waning years of the marriage absorbed in her art. In her comics, Station Eleven houses Earth’s last survivors, looking for a new home in the universe aboard a moon-sized space station, where a rift has developed between Dr. Eleven, the station’s leader, and a group of rebels who simply want to go back home. It isn’t the most subtle thing in the world when Mandel makes the parallels between the comics’ storyline and the lives of post-collapse survivors obvious. But it’s handled with such storytelling grace that it never loses you as a reader.
For readers looking for some harrowing passages, there’s a sequence late in the novel set in a Michigan airport that has become home to several hundred people and, eventually, a museum of the pre-collapse civilization, where smartphones and laptops are on display. Mandel most effectively conveys the horrors of the collapse, not through clichéd scenes of human depravity, but through the subtle touch of the moment-by-moment loss of conveniences we’ve all become dependent on. First, the TV stations go off the air, then phones and the internet don’t work, then lights go out. After a few years, gasoline has gone stale and cars won’t run. A particularly haunting moment has survivors at the airport watching the final takeoff of the last plane they will ever see aloft, an everyday sight that, quite suddenly, will never occur again.
It may be the case that Station Eleven is a “cozy catastrophe” (a phrase initially coined by Brian Aldiss in his history of SF, The Billion-Year Spree), in that perhaps too little attention is given to those first years of post-collapse struggle. But in the end, it’s clear that the story Emily St. John Mandel wanted to tell was of people seeking to rebuild their world by appreciating and attempting to preserve all that was good about the old one. (If anything, I thought the weakest scenes in the book dealt with the banal business of a fanatical cult “prophet,” menacing the Symphony after setting his sights on one of its women as his newest bride. But thankfully Mandel get this out of the way in short order.) The result is that Station Eleven becomes an end-of-the-world saga with a sense of hope and optimism that feels, not merely tacked on to the end in obligatory fashion, but legitimately and gratefully earned.