One of the central questions Station Eleven asks its readers is: what would you do in a world without technology? No electricity, no Internet, no modern transportation; the world-wide pandemic called “the Collapse” by the survivors in the story, has reduced people to a nomadic, anarchic existence, one in which they are fascinated by the artifacts of the way things used to be.
What do the characters in the book themselves do? Beyond basic human activities like eating and sleeping, they perform Shakespeare’s plays for others who attend these performances. They fight violently against those who would try to control them. They forage in abandoned houses for not just useful, but interesting objects. They have love and sexual relationships. Children. They search for lost companions, protect each other from harm.
There’s an interesting message here. After such an apocalypse, some authors might (and have) shown humans lapsing into barbarism and despair. But Ms. Mandel does not do this. Not only do the survivors have children and love, they work together, they care for each other. And they spend considerable energy on the arts.
Station Eleven has been called and promoted as a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel. Also as speculative fiction. What does dystopian mean?
The word comes from the ancient Greek word topos, meaning a traditional theme or formula in literature. Official definitions often begin with the idea of dystopian being the antonym of utopian, so there are utopian novels, where an ideal society is depicted, and there are dystopian novels, where society is oppressive and dehumanizing. George Orwell’s 1984 is a fine example.
Characteristic themes of a dystopian novel include:
Loss of individualism
For centuries, there have been cultural fears about technology, and dystopian literature often involves technology running amok and being used for evil purposes. Fahrenheit 451 is a good example, as are the Terminator films. Hasta la vista, baby.
A recurrent theme in dystopian works is that a utopian society leads to the loss of individual freedom and control, a fear that the greater good always leads to tyranny. Brave New World, anyone?
So, how about in Station Eleven?
Certainly, the book depicts an apocalypse. Most of the world’s population has died in a pandemic of flu. However, instead of being controlled by machines, the survivors must cope with the loss of technology and the resulting impact on their lives. There is no internet, no gasoline, no electricity. The survivors cannot take survival for granted. Books and other written materials—like Kristen’s Station Eleven comic—are hidden and hoarded. Because of the devastation, there doesn’t seem to be any government, and the survivors must cope as best they can in a tribalized and violent society where strangers are sometimes malevolent. There is not the environmental destruction depicted in the Station Eleven comic, although it could be said that the environment, in the form of the flu pathogen, has turned on humans.
Instead of a loss of individualism, the survivors actually express considerable humanity. The Traveling Symphony group is shown presenting Shakespeare’s plays, keeping that humanist tradition alive.
I think it’s a disservice to confine Station Eleven in a genre like dystopian. As we can see above, it’s much more than this. It is speculative in the sense of showing the results of a possible but not real event. Of course, isn’t most fiction speculative in this way? Most fiction is based on a question. What if particular characters are placed into a situation in which they must react and adjust? What do they do?
This is the center of Station Eleven.
Next week, we’ll continue our discussion, focusing on the way the novel handles time.