Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

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Last Updated on January 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760

At one point in Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, one of the members of the Traveling Symphony, August, questions whether there might be a parallel universe in which the Georgia Flu happened but was survivable. This is a thought that makes uncomfortable reading in a world still in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic: are the Traveling Symphony living in our alternate reality—the one in which the virus killed more than it left untouched?

Mandel's novel, like all post-apocalyptic novels, is frequently uncomfortable. Like other post-apocalyptic novels, too, it recognizes that it is part of a crowded genre. Mandel deals with this fact by tackling it directly: her characters make reference to films they have seen and books they have read in which similar disasters have befallen the world. They realize that they are following paths and, at times, using tips and tricks laid down by Hollywood. What makes the novel captivating is that the people in Mandel's novel are not content simply to be survivors. In a world following a global collapse, what they want is to live.

This distinction between survival and living is underscored throughout the novel through its continued emphasis on art and the importance of art. The primary heroes of the post-collapse section of the novel are the Traveling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians whose stated goal is to travel around what remains of civilization and keep the survivors connected to the art and music of their past. Their motto, “Survival is insufficient,” is taken from Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry's great science fiction manifesto of hope. In the Star Trek world, disaster falls upon Earth, only to be chased away in the end. The inherent goodness of people, and their hope, helps humanity in the Star Trek universe to build a better world and move beyond disaster. Meanwhile, in the time of Shakespeare, we are reminded, disaster after disaster closed theaters and wreaked havoc upon London, only for more art to appear out of the wreckage. The Traveling Symphony are the living manifestation of the idea that this post-collapse society, too, will be able to improve and rebuild, so long as it has art as well as basic physical sustenance.

The central piece of art in the novel is, of course, Dr. Eleven. What is so remarkable about this is that, in the world before the collapse, it was almost unknown: a comic book drawn by an unknown artist, Miranda Carroll, and produced in an extremely limited run. Such is the power of art, though, that the two people who did have access to this work, Kirsten and Tyler, have clung to it for decades, each using it in their own way as a source of strength. For Tyler, it becomes the basis of a religion through which he gains a cult following. For Kirsten, it becomes a dream of hope to return to when times are difficult. In both cases, however, the endurance of Dr. Eleven proves the truth of the mantra that survival is insufficient: art is necessary, and humans will always turn to it when the future is uncertain.

The construction of the post-pandemic world in Station Eleven is incredibly intricately drawn, with all the central characters being connected to each other in unexpected ways. Arthur Leander, who dies in the opening scene of the novel, nevertheless casts a long shadow over it. Arthur and his death are the lynchpins around which Clark, Elizabeth, Tyler, Jeevan, Miranda, and Kirsten all revolve. He brings them together, years after his death. Mandel uses Arthur, and the group of people in his orbit, to help underscore the idea that fate has some hand in what we do; yet Tyler, the prophet who becomes fixated on things happening for a reason, serves to safeguard against the idea that fate is everything. While it is incredibly surprising that Kirsten and Tyler should encounter each other as they do, Tyler's blind dedication to the idea that fate dictated who lived and who died is proven to be folly, leading to unnecessary death and destruction. The message of Station Eleven, rather, is that while fate may certainly connect people in complex and unexpected ways, it is never the only factor in what happens to us or to the world. On the contrary, it is through human hope, endurance, and action that the world is forced to change for the better—and where humans allow themselves art and enjoyment, as well as their basic needs, we can expect that change to happen far more quickly.

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