Analysis

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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?

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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 entire section contains 760 words.)

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