Station Eleven: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction’s Perseverance

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a perfect example of how genre fiction can achieve literary "legitimacy."

When it comes to post-apocalyptic fiction, we’ve seen it all, haven’t we? Sure there are countless examples in lowbrow sci-fi and fantasy, but what about the more literary additions to the canon?

Even so, every scenario postulating our impending doom has been mapped out…right? Earth’s rotation gradually slowing to molasses pace? Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. Mankind succumbing to illness? Effectively managed with Richard Matheson’s brilliant I Am Legend, Stephen King’s The Stand, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and countless others. If unspecified devastation is more your cup of tea, there’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Some of the greatest novels ever written have dealt with apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic, themes: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and the list goes on.

Since Mary Shelley’s The Last Man in 1826, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction have been hotter than Death Valley on a late summer day. In the last few months alone, five of the biggest fiction releases have dealt with the subject: Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Edan Lepucki’s California, Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands, and the most renowned and revered of the five, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

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With the exception of a few of the aforementioned classic novels, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction falls into the much maligned denouement of genre fiction, and—unfortunately—most of these novels don’t get serious recognition in the world of literature. That is, until McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for The Road. But with the ever-increasing amount of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction hitting shelves, some complained of the subject’s overuse, calling the genre past its prime.

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In late 2014, when Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—a book wherein 99.9% of the world’s population has been wiped out by something called the Georgia Flu—was announced as a National Book Award Finalist, she received rare validation that genre fiction can be literary. More importantly, she proved that post-apocalyptic fiction hasn’t gone stale.

Mandel published three earlier crime novels with Colorado small press Unbridled Books, achieving critical—but not much monetary—success. So when a three day, six publisher bidding war over Station Eleven erupted, netting her a mid-six-figure advance, Mandel wasn’t exactly prepared. “When I started writing, there were a few literary post-apocalyptic novels, but not quite the incredible glut that there is now,” Mandel said in a New York Times interview. “I was afraid the market might be saturated.”

Hot on the heels of Edan Lepucki’s California release, Joe Mathews of Slate released an article called “Yesterday’s Apocalypse” discussing the book and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction as a whole:

“Too many of the narratives that drive today’s apocalyptic stories owe a debt to California writer Philip K. Dick […] Lepucki’s [California], while beautifully written, also feels dated. Her post-apocalyptic world of tomorrow seems driven by fears that come from the California of the 1970s and 1980s: overpopulation (not much of a concern in a state where immigration has flat-lined and the birthrate has fallen to below-replacement levels), food shortages (when cheap, obesity-boosting food is all too available), crime and violence (today at record lows), and the rise of the gated exurbs for the rich. [Lepucki], while evasive on most details, also pins the apocalypse on today’s hot buttons: Climate change, terrorism, and income equality seem to have wiped out many cities and people. […] You see, it’s challenging being imaginative in your apocalyptic musings when there is so much to be annoyed about today. [Our] visions of the future, dark or light, feel so unoriginal, so limited. It’s time to cast a wider net.”

Mathews fails to see that there are so many compelling post-apocalyptic stories nowbecause their premises are all so plausible, so within reach with the escalating turmoil of our real modern world. Mathews’ criticism is on point when it comes to California, though, and it’s this cynicism that makes critics—and often readers—skeptical about picking up a post-apocalyptic novel (let’s face it though: the majority of post-apocalyptic novels are high stakes, hit-or-miss tales). But there has always been a misguided critical stiffness when it comes to genre fiction. Mandel, though she’s the most recent big-time success story, isn’t nearly the first critically successful literary author to cross over.

Glen Duncan, an English novelist, was told that—after seven previous low-selling literary novels—his best shot at publishing again would be to take a run at genre fiction; his The Last Werewolf series—though it wasn’t originally planned as such—is a commercial and critical success. Justin Cronin, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Mary and O’Neil, has published two of three books (The Passage and The Twelve) of his vampire trilogy. Tom Perrotta, critically acclaimed author of Election and Little Children, took on the Rapture with 2011’s The Leftovers. Colson Whitehead, a former MacArthur Fellow and Whiting Writers Award winner, published the post-apocalyptic zombie novel Zone One (which was, admittedly, a rambling disappointment from a usually calculating and efficient author).

The literary-commercial crossover hit is rare, but not unheard of. Duncan, Cronin, Perotta, and Whitehead attempted the move when the term “literary genre fiction” was laughed off by critics.

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With all of the recent success of literary novelists crossing over, can we agree that the onus on genre fiction is misplaced? We can? Good.

Those same critics are now lauding Mandel’s Station Eleven. Mandel’s crossover comes at a time when a trope has been deemed overdone, injecting new life into a subject matter that has been enticing for nearly two centuries.

Mathews’ commentary on Lepucki’s California may be pertinent, but Mandel’s Station Eleven can’t be pigeonholed into a genre so easily, and her apocalypse is far more believable than most. Early on in Station Eleven, Mandel launches into “An Incomplete List”:

No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities […] No more countries, all borders unmanned […] No more Internet. No more [scrolling] through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken […] No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in doing so, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars. (31-32.)

It becomes clear early on, even earlier than this passage, that Mandel’s book is not simply an exploitation of a literary trope; there is clearly something deeper going on here, a revelatory comment on the human condition, and how whoever remains of mankind will persevere with what’s happened to them.  

Station Eleven begins with famed actor, Arthur Leander, suffering a massive heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, rushes on stage and tries, in vain, to revive him. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress, watches on as her idol dies. This is the catalyst of Station Eleven’s plot, the spark that sets it into motion; we pick up twenty years later, as Kirsten and her fellow musicians in The Travelling Symphony wander their ravaged former America, searching for friends/performers they got separated from.

Related: The 10 Best Apocalyptic Books

The book jumps back and forth in time, following Arthur, Jeevan, Kirsten, and numerous others, before and after the Georgia Flu. What’s best about Station Eleven is that Mandel is so deft at her craft, such a melodic and gifted writer, that the reader almost doesn’t realize that this is post-apocalyptic fiction:

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There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels. (37)

It’s tempting when writing about a sensationalist topic such as the End of Days to make the event itself the main focus of the story, to paint its colors bright and vibrant on the pages. However, Mandel barely talks about the actual event. There’s no mushroom cloud stretching out to smother families cowering in their living room; there’s no fiery skyscrapers crumbling; there’s no expanse of zombies, packed like sardines, dead-eyed and ravenous, in Times Square; there’s no crumbling earth, no lightning bolt sky.

In fact, Mandel’s apocalypse is nearly omitted, simply a before and after shot. It’s Mandel’s “meliorism”—the belief that the world gets better, that humans can improve it—that shapes Station Eleven, a rare optimistic post-apocalyptic novel. And truthfully, it’s this that makes Station Eleven one of the best cases for literary genre fiction I’ve encountered.

If books like Mandel’s keep coming out, post-apocalyptic fiction hasn’t nearly begun to stale; in fact, it could be just beginning.