As a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, I was excited by the premise of Emily St John Mandel’s latest work. With a killer flu, crowded hospitals full of the dead, and a prophet who wants to recreate the human race, many of the great tropes of the genre were already in place.
But Station Eleven does something different, too. Because it isn’t just post-apocalyptic, it is also pre and during-apocalyptic (I don’t think they’re real terms, but I’m using them.) Starting on the actual night that the pandemic hits America, the novel jumps in time; from the early aftermath, to twenty years or so later, and back to various plot points in the days and months leading up to the end of the world.
For once in the genre, we have all the answers. The whos, the whats, the whys, and the wheres. Margaret Attwood did something similar with her recent trilogy, but three books gives you a lot more scope to cover the end of days from so many angles.
It’s quite an achievement. A few characters link the three time periods. Jeevan is on hand to give mouth-to-mouth to the dying Arthur in the opening scene, and it his him we follow through the early days of the apocalypse. But it is back to Arthur in the pre-dstruction period. Well, him and the three wives he collects throughout the book. And one of those wives will play a crucial role in the far future sections, as she teaches her son that the apocalypse must’ve come about because of humanity’s ignorance of the bible.
But it is perhaps Kirsten who most works as the heartbeat of the novel. She is a child actress in the opening scenes, present when Jeevan tries to save Arthur’s life. And in those far future sections, she is leading a group of travelling actors and musicians through the barren landscape. They perform Shakespeare plays to towns and villages with few survivors.
And therein lies the main point of the novel. In a very clever way, Mandel is highlighting all of the things that are at risk in an age when we take the world for granted. Shakespeare and high art is one thing, but in jumping back and forth as she does, she makes it clear that it is not just these big things that we might one day miss. One section particularly highlights her point:
You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone.
Those are the things future generations might have to do without, and those are the things Mandel highlights as important in the days when everyone continues as normal.
In focusing on the simple things, Mandel makes this novel all the more unsettling. In showing us how the world might function if you take away our daily habits and technology, she creates a work that’s chilling, disturbing, and more believable than much of its genre.