Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, Station Eleven, whisks readers around the globe and across decades, exploring the before and after of the fictional Georgia Flu pandemic that eradicates the world as they know it. Leaping back and forth through time, the post-apocalyptic novel interweaves the stories of an egotistical actor and his ex-wives, a paramedic-in-training, a physicist lost in space, and a nomadic troupe of Shakespearean actors known as The Travelling Symphony. Here’s what you need to know about the ambitious and acclaimed novel. (Spoilers below!)
1. Station Eleven takes its name from a story within the story.
Created by artist-turned-shipping exec Miranda Carroll, Dr. Eleven is a graphic novel (within the novel) that follows the adventures of its titular scientist aboard Station Eleven. Like the novel’s post-apocalyptic setting, this eponymous space station is in ruin, yet besieged by drama. In the post-pandemic year 20, these little-known comics are treasured by child actress-turned -Shakespearean trouper Kirsten Raymonde as well as the mysterious Prophet, who rules over the crumbling community of St. Deborah By The Water.
2. Emily St. John Mandel re-imagined her hometown in Station Eleven.
Much of the plot of Station Eleven unfurls in the Great Lakes region of post-pandemic North America. However, the fictional Delano Island, where famed actor Arthur Leander and his first wife Miranda grew up, was based on Denman Island, a small, rural island in British Columbia where Mandel was raised. It was also where she established her love of the performing arts (she seriously considered becoming a dancer), writing, and Star Trek, all of which became pivotal for Station Eleven’s creation.
3. Station Eleven’s Star Trek allusion reflects Emily St. John Mandel’s personal belief.
“I hesitate to call myself a ‘trekkie’ because that implies a level of fandom that’s just kind of beyond,” she told the Columbia Tribune in 2015. “I mean, I don’t know Klingon.” Still, a line from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager became a credo to her and Station Eleven’s Travelling Symphony. Mandel recounted how she regularly watched the show in her teen years, noting, “I do remember watching that episode [‘Survival Instinct’] in 1999, when Seven-of-Nine says, ‘Survival is insufficient.’ And that did sort of stay with me. It struck me as an utterly elegant expression of what I believe.”
“Survival is never sufficient,” she told NPR. “Here in the present ... we play musical instruments at refugee camps. We put on plays in war zones. Immediately following the Second World War, there was a fashion show in Paris. There's something about art I think that can remind us of our humanity. It could remind us of our civilization. So that line became almost the thesis statement of the entire novel.”
4. Station Eleven’s opening King Lear sequence was inspired by a real theater production.
Nothing so tragic as the onstage death of an acting legend occurred in real life. Yet in the acknowledgment notes at the end of Station Eleven, Mandel writes, “The Toronto staging of King Lear described in this book is partially based on James Lapine’s exquisite 2007 production of the play at the Public Theater in New York City, in that Lapine’s production featured the unusual addition of three little girls who performed nonspeaking parts as child versions of Lear’s daughters.”
“They never have a line of dialogue in the play, but they were just on stage playing a game,” she explained to Bustle in 2014, “Later, they came back as hallucinations in the mad scene. It lent a kind of pathos to it, because the idea of those characters [Regan and Goneril] in their adult versions—they're so evil! But you see that they were children once. It brought an extra level of sadness.”
5. Emily St. John Mandel wrote Station Eleven to avoid being pigeonholed.
Prior to Station Eleven, Mandel had written three novels: Last Night In Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet. In a 2014 interview with The Washington Post, Mandel explained that she doesn’t write with genre in mind. Still, all three of her books had been classified as crime thrillers. “With ‘Station Eleven,’ I set out to write something completely different,” she explained, “because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a crime writer.”
6. The success of Station Eleven urged Emily St. John Mandel to quit her survival job.
Mandel’s three previous books hadn’t sold well, but Station Eleven minted her as a literary star, selling 1.5 million copies. Yet, in the summer of 2015, she was balancing a tour for her wildly popular novel with her work as an administrative assistant at Rockefeller University’s cancer-research lab. While booking a flight for her boss, she realized her dream job was going so well that others were paid to book her travel for the tour—so it was probably time to quit her safety gig. “If you’re from a working-class background,” she told Vulture in a 2020 profile, “it’s really hard to let go of that day job.”
7. Station Eleven won widespread acclaim.
The novel was long-listed for the Bailey’s women’s prize for fiction, short-listed for the Pen/Faulkner award, named a finalist for the U.S.’s National Book Awards, and won the Toronto Book Award. However, its most prestigious honor was winning The Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science-fiction book of the year. “While many post-apocalypse novels focus on the survival of humanity,” Chair of the judges, Andrew M. Butler pronounced in 2015, “Station Eleven focuses instead on the survival of our culture, with the novel becoming an elegy for the hyper-globalised present.”
8. George R. R. Martin championed Station Eleven.
The fantasy author renowned for creating the Game of Thrones book series took to his personal blog to proclaim Mandel’s book the best novel of 2014. “One could, I suppose, call it a post-apocalypse novel,” Martin wrote in his Live Journal. “And it is that, but all the usual tropes of that subgenre are missing here, and half the book is devoted to flashbacks to before the coming of the virus that wipes out the world, so it's also a novel of character, and there's this thread about a comic book and Doctor Eleven and a giant space station and ... oh, well, this book should NOT have worked, but it does. It's a deeply melancholy novel, but beautifully written, and wonderfully elegiac ... a book that I will long remember, and return to.”
9. Emily St. John Mandel doesn’t think of Station Eleven as science-fiction.
Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science-fiction book of the year in 2015, but in a 2014 tweet exchange, Mandel revealed that she doesn’t think her novel is sci-fi at all.
On October 15, 2014, Washington Post book correspondent Ron Charles published an article about Station Eleven’s inclusion on the National Book Award Finalists, writing, “[It is] one of the very few sci-fi novels that have ever been finalists for the NBA.”
Mandel responded on Twitter, tweeting, “Great piece. I actually don't think of Station Eleven as sci-fi, but am fully prepared to concede that I may be alone in this ...” This tweet led to an e-mail exchange with Charles, in which Mandel admitted, “I was surprised to discover that if you write literary fiction that’s set partly in the future, you’re apparently a sci-fi writer.”
10. Emily St. John Mandel thinks genre labels in fiction are bad for readers.
“My only objection to these categories,” she told WaPo, “Is that when you have a book like [Station Eleven] that doesn’t fit neatly into any category, there’s a real risk that readers who only read ‘literary fiction’ won’t pick it up because they think they couldn’t possibly like sci-fi. While sci-fi readers will pick up the book based on the sci-fi categorization, and then be disappointed because the book isn’t sci-fi enough.”
11. Emily St. John Mandel warned readers away from Station Eleven during the coronavirus pandemic.
Perhaps some felt a book about scrappy survivors creating art in the wake of a world-razing epidemic might be a balm to read in 2020. However, Mandel—who did plenty of research into pathogens while writing Station Eleven—responded empathetically to those who lamented the decision to read the novel in January of 2020, tweeting, “To all the distressed readers in my mentions: we’re in agreement that it just wasn’t a great week to start reading Station Eleven, and I don’t like to think about the coronavirus either.”
In February, she more explicitly advised in a tweet, “Now is a bad time to start a re-read of Station Eleven.”