The Triumphant Apocalypse of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

station eleven

I remember hot air coming out of vents in the winter, and machines that played music. I remember what computers looked like with the screen lit up. I remember how you could open a fridge, and cold air and light would spill out. Or freezers, even colder, with those little squares of ice in trays. Do you remember fridges?
–Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Unless 2014 was the year you broke from society and lived in a cabin in the woods, you’ve heard about Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel’s novel features the Traveling Symphony, a classical orchestra and Shakespearean theatre troupe traveling by horse-pulled makeshift wagons around the Great Lakes, entertaining the small communities which have rebuilt after a catastrophic flu.

The book begins in the midst of a performance of King Lear, just before the world’s end. I expected a detailed account of the flu and the fall of civilization, but the novel isn’t linear, and the characters come in and out of focus in different phases of their lives. They meet briefly and bounce off each other, and we see a bit of the end of the old world, and the beginning of the new one, from intimate perspectives.

Station Eleven fell into a larger group of post-apocalyptic releases last year, but St. John Mandel approached things in a dramatically different way than the fear-based setting which defines much of the dystopian trend. Dystopian novels often magnify our discomforts with the status quo, building worlds in which our love of reality television turns lethal or bio-engineered foods run amuckStation Eleven steps across dystopian fiction, leaps twenty years past magnifying our fears of crowded cities amidst an epidemic, into a sweeping survey of modern civilization, its accomplishments, its beauty, and our ultimate ability to rebuild. St. John Mandel has called Station Eleven “a love letter to the modern world.”

The beauty of flight, the miracle of researching anything and everything on the internet, the light and cool air blasting from refrigerators as you open them–Station Eleven looks at our world today as full of magic and ease, full of countless small miracles to be cherished.

Last September, Grantland declared “Dystopia is the New Western.” Author Jason Concepcion explained TV shows such as The Walking Dead and Doomsday Preppers:

Dystopian fiction and media is a reaction to our reaction to the now constant whisper of bad fucking news: terrorism, financial crisis, the erosion of the middle class, historic drought, racial animus, global warming, choosing between water and energy.

David Mitchell, whose novel The Bone Clocks topped charts in 2014, echoed this sentiment in a New York times article addressing Station Eleven and the apocalyptic craze:

“It’s in the air, isn’t it?” Mr. Mitchell said of the literary preoccupation with the end of the world. “In a way, how can you be a sane and compassionate human being and not be increasingly alarmed by what’s happening to the planet, when it’s potentially civilization-ending?”

But instead of reading bad news and fetishizing our demise, some are pushing forward and calling for science fiction to think bigger, think farther, and push towards solutions rather than endings. Ursula Le Guin, when honored at the National Book Awards this year, said in her acceptance speech:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Station Eleven, I think, embraces this larger reality. St. John Mandel brings some much needed hope and humanity to the trend.

Station Eleven on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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