What makes post-apocalyptic fiction good? And what makes Station Eleven fail at being a good post-apocalyptic novel, despite its other strengths?
There are two aspects to the book’s post-apocalypse. The first is the coming of the apocalypse itself, when the characters in the book see the disease spread across the world and end civilization in a few weeks.
The second is the depiction of a post-apocalyptic society. In a world where 99.9% of people are dead, the survivors congregate in leisurely makeshift camps around highway exit strip malls.
For someone more interested in the book than I am, a person who would reread the book and fill in its margins with notes, the key to understanding Ms. Mandel’s approach to these two aspects in the book can be found in the character Jeevan Chaudhary a, according to the book jacket, “papparazzo-turned-EMT,” which is a hysterical realist description of a character if I’ve ever heard one.
We are given a front seat to the apocalypse through three points of view: Jeevan’s, Miranda’s, and Blake’s. Miranda is at a hotel and she dies without any fanfare and without much introspection. Blake doesn’t so much see the apocalypse as not see it. He is stuck in an airplane where, miraculously, no one has contracted the disease. He never leaves, and so he never gets the disease, and so he doesn’t die. But this also means he doesn’t get to see anything.
This leaves Jeevan, who camps out in an apartment with his brother while the world dies around him. He also doesn’t see the apocalypse up close, and that section of the book is mostly a story of boredom, as he and his brother try to keep themselves occupied while they wait the disease out. There are descriptions of gun shots and fires, however, and this is our most vivid treatment of the end of the world.
What I’m saying is, the book avoids describing the apocalypse directly, probably because the author doesn’t want to go for the gross-out. This is a quieter treatment of the end of the world, more along the line of Neville Shute’s On The Beach than Stephen King’s the Stand. The former has no story to tell after the end of the world though, literally everyone dies and that’s the end of the book. In The Stand, of course, we are treated to a five hundred page description of the end of the world. King spends more time describing the apocalypse than there are pages in Station Eleven (whose length is padded by a fair number of half-page to two page chapters). The world of The Stand also takes longer to end than that of Station Eleven, and thus there is more time for society to end. In Station Eleven civilization pretty much blinks out of existence. One day there are newscasters, the next day there aren’t, and the day after that the electricity is gone.
How you imagine character react under that kind of pressure is, I think, what people want to read about the apocalypse. It’s not grotesque or voyeuristic (well, maybe it is), but being able to safely pretend to experience the worst things imaginable is one of the pleasures of fiction. If you’re going to show the apocalypse, show it. If you don’t want to then you can do what Twenty-Eight Days Later did, and have the action erupt immediately after the world has ended. But if you’re character’s are bored during the apocalypse, then I’m going to be bored reading about it. Apparently a lot of people disagree, especially with regards to this book, so I clearly have no idea what people want to read.
On to the second aspect. So Jeevan survives the apocalypse, and he flees from Toronto to Virginia or one of the Carolinas. In any case, it’s somewhere you can get tobacco. Here he lives out a genteel life as a country doctor. We see his life after the apocalypse in two short chapters. Why is he reintroduced here? Mostly, it seems, so we can get some backstory on the Prophet, the perfunctory villain of the novel (other than the Georgia Flu, obviously).
You see, the bad guy in the novel came from the upper Great Lakes Region, but then he goes South and gets a bunch of guns (because all the violence in the world is contained in the American South, get it?), then migrates back North with a cult so he can terrorize the good folks of what was formerly Michigan.
Anyway, to get back to the point, none of the characters in the post-apocalyptic world work very hard. The characters whose point of view we see are: a genteel country doctor, an actress, and a museum curator. We are only told about any hardships, we don’t actually see anyone starve, and the only person killed in this post-apocalyptic world who didn’t deserve (meaning, wasn’t a religious nut job) was killed on accident. On accident! He’s killed by the bad guys, but it’s part of a kidnapping gone wrong. The bad guys also shoot an innocent woman, but she survives.
And I think this gets to the crux of the other aspect of the post-apocalypse. It should be dangerous. What we get, though, is a TV serial version of danger, where the bad things happen to other people or, it turns out, the bad stuff isn’t that bad at all. The actress becomes separated from her acting troupe while they’re being chased by the bad guys. She returns to the camp to find that everyone has gone missing. Were they abducted by the bad guys? Did they have a gun fight? No! They were warned the bad guys were coming and skedaddled without incident.
All of the violence is stuffed into the end, and is so jarring in tone and style that, at least for me, there was no moment of sickening horror, just a kind of, “Huh, so are we doing that now?” And as quickly as it starts it’s over. If the book played it for laughs I could go along with that, but it didn’t, and mostly I was confused.
Obviously, A Canticle For Leibowitz is the greatest post-apocalyptic novel of all time (the GPANOAT), and there’s really not that much violence in the book, considering the whole thing is set after a nuclear apocalypse, and in the first chapter the monk-apprentice gets killed by bandits. What that book has that Station Eleven lacks is a sense of history. Which is kind of a cheap ploy by A Canticle, modeling the book’s dark age after late antiquity/the early middle ages. But there are stakes in the collapse of society and its continuation, stakes which I feel Station Eleven doesn’t plumb. What does it meant to create a society from scratch? What tempting possibilities are there for an entire reorganization? These are the questions of science fiction! But I’m pretty sure the characters in Station Eleven just want to recreate a world where everyone can get a private arts education and find a cushy, semi-creative office job after slumming it for a few years. Which, ironically, is exactly what happens to Miranda.