Jean-Paul Satre’s famous words permeate the text of Emily St John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station 11, where a virus wiping out 99% of the Earth’s population leads its survivors to realise how alone in the world they can truly be. The story opens with a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, starring fading Hollywood actor Arthur Leander, who has a heart attack and dies on stage. The next day, the black plague-like Georgia Flu has reached North America, causing all those exposed to it to die within hours. Dipping between the past and the present, we then follow the journeys of characters who have, however distantly, touched Arthur’s life: Jeevan, a former paparazzo and practicing medic; Kirsten, a child actress on the same production of Lear; Clark, Arthur’s eccentric friend turned corporate suit; and Miranda, Arthur’s first wife and creator of her unpublished life’s work, the comic book series Station 11.
The dystopian genre has become somewhat overcrowded in recent years, and Station 11 takes the self-aware approach of acknowledging this, commenting on how Jeevan’s knowledge of how to prepare for this emergency situation comes entirely from such films. The strength of the novel lies in Mandel’s down to Earth commentary on the first world’s reliance on material things, referencing the way in which young people are missing Twitter and noting Clark’s museum, preserving the love of technology. Perhaps when, post-pandemic , several characters revert to the former, happier selves of their youth, Mandel is suggesting that it is easy for us to get too caught up in societal expectations regarding careers and finance, rather than appreciating the natural world around us.
At times, the description of the New World is reminiscent of today’s Third World countries, a dig at the imbalanced quality of life that humans lead. Eschewing the typical explosions and gory fights for survival which occur in standard zombie apocalypse fiction, Station 11 is more preoccupied with the philosophy of why people continue to fight. In the novel’s present, the Shakespearian theatre troupe ‘The Travelling Symphony’ are pioneers of this philosophising, painting the Star Trek quote “Because survival is insufficient,” on their caravan.
There is a strong theme of redemption in the narrative, suggesting that the world will always find the strength to begin anew, offering a spiritual rebirth to many of its characters. In the penultimate chapter, the reader finally delves into the perspective of Arthur in his final moments, where he watches the fake snow falling around the lights and contemplates its beauty. The snow can be seen as representing an ending, the cold and wintery finality of a year coinciding with the end of the world. The twenty years which follow show how survivors can struggle on, traveling in search of hope. By performing Shakespeare, ‘The Travelling Symphony’ preserve the “best things” of the former world, emphasising the importance of community and the role that the arts plays in that sort of society.
Mandel can be accused of relying too heavily on coincidence at times, the overlapping lives of so many people connected to Arthur’s life being a prime example of this, and some looking for a thrilling action-adventure may be left disappointed by this more sensitive, psychologically-centred approach to the apocalypse. However, the halving of the novel into two timelines is crucial in distancing Station 11 from others of its ilk, and works to illustrate the day-to-day frivolity of which we are all guilty. Station 11 confronts the reader with how easily the world as we know it can change, but offers comfort by demonstrating that, even in the face of doomsday, the will-power of humans will always allow them to continue the search for lights in the darkness.