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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Science Fiction? - Station Eleven

Narratives are a balance of mimetic, thematic, and synthetic threads. Mimetic threads are those that present convincing characters and plots, life-like representations that help the reader to suspend the sense of reading a made-up story. Thematic threads are those that represent larger abstract ideas, such as good triumphing over evil or honesty being the best policy—those examples are kind of trite, but you get the idea.

Synthetic threads in a novel are those that have to do with the author (implied author) manipulating the story to produce writerly affects. I think Station Eleven is weighted with these, and the second section of the book, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a fine example.

Come to think of it, the previous chapter is also a good example. This chapter appears at the end of the first section and outlines all the things that have been lost since the pandemic:

“An incomplete list:

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights…”

There is no attribution here, so I’m assuming it’s the narrator ‘splaining to the narratee. I suppose it could be one of the characters who survives the pandemic, Kirsten or Clark, but it doesn’t say this, so—

It’s a strong reminder that you’re reading a book and that your experience of reading has been structured by—wait for it—the implied author. The mimetic illusion would be greater, I think, if the story stayed with one character’s experience of the events—at this point, it would have to be Kristen. But she cannot ”see” most of the events shown in the first section. She and Javeen intersect at the theater but not after he leaves. She has met Miranda before but is not with her in Asia. And she is with Arthur when he dies and of course knows him, but he dies on the second page. At the point in the book, just before this section outlining loss occurs, no character has the knowledge of the effects of the pandemic. It is only the narrator who can “step back” and list the lost things. In fact, the characters are unaware of the narrator’s existence.

Then, in creating the second section, the implied author intervenes forcefully again by jumping ahead in time by twenty years. The time between is gradually filled in, particularly when the story gets to Clark’s experience of living in the Severn City Airport. But at this earlier point, we have an abrupt leap with the narrator showing the survivors’ experience of life twenty years after the pandemic, or “Collapse,” as they call it. A nice link connects the Traveling Symphony rehearsing Shakespeare’s King Lear with Arthur’s beginning performance of King Lear.

In addition to the leaps in time and the narrator’s voice listing losses, there are other synthetic devices used in Station Eleven that create texture, as well as communicating to the reader that this is a creatively structured work, that a storyteller is telling you the story.

What are they, please?

Towards the middle of the book, the text produces letters written by a younger Arthur Leander to a childhood friend. Then there is an interview conducted by a journalist of the adult Kristen, wherein she is questioned about what she remembers of time before the Collapse, and about the Traveling Symphony.

There is also considerable connection between the central characters—not always within the same time period. The motif of the Station Eleven graphic novel connects Kristen with its author Miranda, even though Kristen’s main involvement with the graphic novel occurs well after Miranda’s death. This graphic novel is so central to the story; it provides the title and is an excellent mis en abime, my friends. It deserves its own post, and that will be forthcoming.

Certainly, mimetic and thematic threads are substantial, but I still maintain that synthetic elements are prominent in the book. And this manipulation of the text gives the book a somewhat cold, science-fiction feel. I don’t mean this as a negative. But I believe the characters are secondary to the way the story is told, and in some ways, the impersonal Georgian Flu is the book’s main character. A different story might concern an evil mad man who kills off most of humanity in a war—a sort of Hitler or Stalin. Or a disaster story could be about selfish humanity causing a catastrophe that eliminates most people (global warming, anyone?). But Station Eleven presents a third model, an impersonal plague being the villain. There is no one to blame, and this contributes strongly to the survivors’ shock and disarray. There is no one to be angry at, to struggle against. Because they have learned to rely so much on the internet and mass communication, its loss leads to a collapse of civilization. The characters wonder if there’s life on other continents but don’t really know. They turn in on themselves in a way that is opposite to our existence now with its expansion of science, communication, space exploration, etc.


Till next time.


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