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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Once More Into The Abyss

Last time, I said that the Dr. Eleven graphic comic, created by Miranda, is so central to Station Eleven that it deserves its own post.


Let’s review the meaning of mise en abime. We’ve talked about this concept before regarding other novels. The literal French translation is “put in the abyss,” and originally referred to heraldry where an image on a shield or pennant would appear again in a smaller version on the shield or pennant. So you could have, say, a picture of a squirrel with a smaller image of the same squirrel in one corner and on this smaller image, there’d be an even smaller image of a squirrel, and so on. Infinite regression.

Another example is the original Quaker Oats logo which featured a man holding a Quaker Oats packet, and that showed a man holding a Quaker Oats packet, etc.

Quaker Oats?

The point is that mise en abymes are pretty common. A good activity for you would be to hunt them down.

I’m sure.

In narrative, it’s a little different from imagery in that you probably won’t have the exact same story repeated in a briefer version. But one can refer to mise en abyme if an embedded story shares plot elements, structural features or themes with the main story and this makes it possible to correlate plot and subplot.

It gives a narrative a multi-dimensional feel, an abyss, if you will, of context.

Help! I’ve fallen into an abyss of context!

So, you say, what about in Station Eleven?

Roughly nine years before the Collapse, the onset of the pandemic, Miranda created the Dr. Eleven graphic comics. She was lonely, in an unhappy relationship and working at a job where she had a lot of down time. All of this left an emptiness she filled with the creation of a magical pretend universe.

Sort of like writing a novel, eh?

The story is that, a thousand years in the future, a hostile civilization from a nearby galaxy has taken control of Earth and enslaved Earth’s population, but a few hundred rebels have managed to steal a space station and escape. It’s called Station Eleven and was designed to resemble a small planet. There are deep blue seas and rocky islands linked by bridges, an illusion of orange and crimson skies with two moons on the horizon. However, on the station, there are people who, after fifteen years of perpetual twilight, long only to go home, to return to Earth and beg for amnesty, to take their chances under alien rule. They live in the Undersea, an interlinked network of vast fallout shelters under Station Eleven’s oceans.

Dr. Eleven is a physicist who lives on Station Eleven. He has a dog named Luli—and this is significant as the story develops.

Miranda escapes her life by creating a fictional world. “You don’t have to understand it,” she says to her husband. “It’s mine.” Her inspiration was the Calvin and Hobbes comics, specifically Spaceman Spiff, a favorite of mine.

“…she invented the beautiful wreckage of Station Eleven.”

In a prophetic moment, the narrator comments that Station Eleven is all around them (Miranda and Elizabeth).

Section 4 of the book is called The Starship—an obvious reference to Station Eleven.


The section is about Kirsten in the Symphony, how they get Alexandra and are hunted by the Prophet. Kristen and August become separated from the others and head for the Severn City Airport.

I think it’s probably clear by now that Dr. Eleven is a smaller version of Station Eleven. A band of humans have survived a catastrophe and are trying to survive while being assailed by bad guys. The inclusion of this mise en abyme would be enough to deepen context, let’s say if we just had the story of Miranda creating the comic. The connections would be clear. However, Ms. St. John Mandel does more.

Miranda sends her ex-husband, Arthur Leander, two copies of Dr. Eleven, which she has never published. She sends him Dr. Eleven, Vol 1, No. 1: Station Eleven and Dr, Eleven, Vol 1, No. 2 The Pursuit.

Just before the pandemic, Arthur gives one set to the young Kirsten Raymonde, and she keeps them throughout all the long years of her escape from the pandemic, years of violence and loss that lead twenty years later to her being part of the Traveling Symphony. She keeps the comics in a zip-lock bag and has them memorized, treating them with almost religious awe. At one point, she wishes she could live in a parallel universe “where my comics are real…where we boarded Station Eleven and escaped before the world ended.” However, she is not shown making a direct connection between the comics and the state of things post-pandemic. For her, as for Miranda, the comics fill an inner void, an abyss, best beloved.

So our intrepid mise en abyme provides a link between life pre and post pandemic. Kirsten discovers this link when she learns that the Prophet’s dog is named Luli—which is the name of Dr. Eleven’s dog. This mystery is solved when the Prophet is killed, and Kirsten finds a fragment of the Dr. Eleven comic in the Prophet’s copy of the New Testament. The answer to this riddle—which I don’t believe Kirsten learns—is that the Prophet, the villain of the book, is actually Tyler, Arthur Leander’s son who received the other copy of Dr. Eleven from him.

At the end of the book, we have the narrator telling us:

“In Dr. Eleven, Vol 1 No. 1: The Pursuit, Dr. Eleven is visited by the ghost of his mentor, Captain Lonagan, recently killed by an Undersea assassin…

Dr. Eleven: What was it like for you, at the end?

Captain Lonagan: It was exactly like waking up from a dream.

This is after a scene showing Arthur’s death from his perspective, the event that begins the book but is first shown from Jeevan’s.

Then Kirsten gives Clark, another important character, one of the Dr. Eleven comics, and he reads it later in privacy. He recognizes a scene showing a real dinner party he attended with Miranda and Arthur years ago. He thinks: “Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side? If nothing else, it’s pleasant to consider the possibility. He likes the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.”

A beautiful ending to a story about hope amidst disaster, all connected by an earnest little mise en abyme.

Till next time.


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