STATION ELEVEN opens with a performance of King Lear and is rich with reminders that, whilst we may live in a more technologically advanced world, humankind has not changed much since 1616, nor does it look set to change much in the future. In this year, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we are still programmed to survive, to strive and to build connections with others.
Playing King Lear is Arthur Leander and his story holds together the various plot lines that make up STATION ELEVEN. Set partly in a present on the verge of being destroyed by a deadly flu virus, and partly in a post Apocalyptic future, it is unexpectedly gentle, beautiful and uplifting. Kirsten, a young girl on stage with Leander, survives the epidemic and joins with a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony, who traverse a sparsely populated landscape performing for the inhabitants of far flung pockets of new settlements. She carries with her a sci-fi comic containing exquisite drawings of a new planet that’s hiding in a black hole in space. The planet is called Station Eleven and the artist is Miranda, Leander’s ex-wife, who succumbs to the flu lying on a beach watching the sunset blaze and reflecting on her assumptions about what the world would always be like. The only other copy of her comic ever made also survives the apocalypse in tact, given by Leander to his son and left by the boy in an airport terminal where one survivor has set up a museum of relics from the pre-collapse world. The drawings immortalise Leander, fulfilling his desire as an actor not just to be seen but to be remembered albeit not in the way he imagined when comparing himself to the old movie stars whose films are watched over and over
Memory is a theme that Mandel comes back to time and again throughout the novel. It’s the lens through which survival is viewed and elevates STATION ELEVEN above your typical book about societal collapse. It references all we know – or think we know – about what happens in these situations: one character stockpiles bottled water and food, admitting he’s seen enough disaster movies to know how the script plays out. And there’s the obligatory lawlessness, feral gangs and the horror of clogged up highways and bodies rotting behind every closed door. Many survivors bear tattoos of arrows on their bodies to mark the number of people they have killed. But by setting the sections that concern the future in Year Twenty, where cars have been reduced to rusted exoskeletons on flat tires, Mandel can concentrate far more on the process of rebuilding and remembering. In STATION ELEVEN hell is no longer other people, it’s the absence of the people you long for. It explores the notion that memories can be both a blessing and a burden – on whether those who were too little to remember life before have it easier or worse – and reflects on what longing for the past does to our ability to build a future.
Purpose, and the role it plays in what we know as civilisation, is also a key theme – both as in human endeavour and as in the sort that often manifests itself in religion. So there are some who believe they have been spared death from the flu because they are the chosen ones – they form a cult, led my a ranting, raving Lear tribute act, that lives by a set of rules that are just about as far distant from the notion of civilisation as it’s possible to be. In contrast, collective purpose and responsibility create the conditions in which art and beauty can be appreciated once again – a new culture emerges, forged from what was best about the old world and important in the new. A culture that rejects the frivolity and dream like unreality of sending rockets into space and pressing a button to talk to someone hundreds of thousands of miles away, opting instead, at least in the short term, to value the more immediate satisfactions of being fed, loved and able to think about a future with possibilities.
With just the right balance between profundity and the every day, between drama and reflection, and between the stories of individual characters and the wider implications of their behaviour, Mandel has written a thought provoking and unforgettable novel. One that forces us to consider what really matters – are we really so busy that there’s no time to write the full version of thx? – and to confront the human condition head on, in all it’s glorious complexity, as something worth inhabiting with every fibre of our being. Scrawled on one of the Travelling Symphony’s caravans are the words survival is insufficient. When (not if) society as we know it collapses, I hope someone remembers that and, if I am still around, I hereby declare my intention to set up a band of players that creates something beautiful and moving that will help banish the dark.
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for helping and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons, whole or broken, plans to meet up later, please, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading an commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.