Why do I call Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven a utopian dystopia? Her story echoes the tradition of dystopian novels from 1984 and Brave New World to more recent books like McCarthy’s The Road and Veronica Roth’s Divergent by positing a pandemic that wipes out the vast majority of the earth’s population in a matter of days, but the ending, which I will get to, is more optimistic than most.
The novel begins with the death by heart attack, not the deadly flu that is hours away, of a famous actor on the stage of a performance of King Lear in Toronto. Two of the eventual survivors of the pandemic are present–a man who tries to revive the actor and an eight-year-old actress who was on stage when the actor fell dead. Mandel continues the story telling us who will die of the flu but eventually begins to weave her account with pre- and post-pandemic chapters.
Told using the curently favored technique of multiple point-of-view characters, Mandel recounts the life, friends, and wives of the actor, including his first wife Miranda who crafts a dystopian comic book, entitled Station Eleven, the name of an artifical planet that has undergone its own catastrophe.
She also exposes the post-pandemic world mainly thru the story of Kristin, the girl who witnessed the actor’s demise. Kristin has joined a wandering troop of musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare and play classic concerts in surviving villages along a route north of the Great Lakes.
Post-pandemic North America is unlike many dystopia in that it’s more a story about what aspects of civilization survive as it is a struggle of good versus evil. With no electricity or governments, one would not expect Shakespeaere, but Mandel makes a convincing case for people holding onto something that’s not just a link to the past but to something of the past that deserves to survive.
The deep connection to the comic Station Eleven isn’t revealed until the very end, when it is used to present a vision of how people might survive a horrible and devastating disaster. Readers should not expect a scientific accounting of the effects of the “Georgian flu,” since Mandel doesn’t even answer the basic question whether survivors were lucky to not have been exposed or somehow immune. It really doesn’t matter in the end. Mandel tells us the human race can survive because some, though not all, will pick themselves up and save from the past that which is worth saving.