Survival is insufficient: The value of human arts, culture, civilisation and society in Station Eleven / Lynette Heng


Station Eleven, a 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, is unique in how its depiction of life before, during and after the apocalypse centres more on the survival and transformation of human civilisation, culture and artistic endeavours than the physical survival of humanity or individual human characters. This is interesting as apocalyptic fiction usually presents the central crisis as one of how human lives are endangered, where the survival of cultural relics is deemed much less important in the face of a threat to basic needs and survival. In this novel, such a hierarchy is overturned. This can be seen in a number of aspects of the book.

Firstly, the unusual lack of physical danger can be seen in how the third-person narration presents the apocalyptic event in a matter-of-fact way from the beginning, without drawing out the dramatic tension of whether humanity can survive it. It can also be seen in the relative lack of violent conflict or physical threats to individual characters’ safety in the course of the story.

Secondly, the focus on culture is seen in how the novel takes time to explore the lives of main characters who are artists, actors or musicians, including Kirsten, members of the travelling Symphony, Arthur, and Miranda, and their relationships to and perspectives on the arts. It also has a number of characters express nostalgia and longing for the way human civilisation was before the apocalypse, which highlights the value of various aspects of a modern globalised world that we often take for granted. The characters also attempt to preserve what is left of that old world while others go one step further in attempts to re-create and rebuild it.

Hence, I argue that these different aspects of the novel come together to create a narrative that sheds light on the value of human arts, culture, and society, portraying an optimistic outlook on human nature and faith in the ability of humanity to rebuild a form of civilisation that is still full of meaning, hope, and beauty, even after an apocalyptic event.

Lack of Dramatic Tension:

Although Station Eleven is a novel about the apocalypse, in which a viral pandemic called the Georgia Flu wipes out 99% of humanity, leading to the collapse of modern civilisation, there is a startling lack of the usual tension and drama we often associate with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. Unlike other works such as Contagion which feature a frantic race to contain the outbreak and find a cure, the pandemic in Station Eleven is presented with a tone of inevitability, with no question of the possibility of heroic resistance. The virus is simply too deadly, highly contagious with a fast incubation period, leaving humanity without the time to attempt to fight it. It is instead taken for granted as a premise of the story that the apocalypse will happen, or has already happened, and most of humanity will die. This is at times reflected in the omniscient voice of the narration, for instance in comments such as,

“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

This line states the character’s death in a matter-of-fact tone without drawing out the dramatic details of how he died, in a way that is characteristic of the novel’s rather contemplative and realist tone, lacking aspects of a thriller or suspense novel. It also reflects the novel’s more general tendency to skip forwards and backwards in time without strictly following a linear chronological order to recount events, as the chapters in the later half of the book revisit the days before and during the apocalypse interspersed with descriptions of characters’ lives after the apocalypse. This results in a sense of inevitability and interconnectedness regarding the events of the story, showing how it is less a question of

“will humanity survive?”

and more of

“how do these events play out?”

Hence, the dramatic tension of characters trying to “save humanity”, in the sense of ensuring humans’ physical survival, is absent in this book.

Relative Lack of Physical Violence:

Besides its depiction of the apocalyptic pandemic, Station Eleven also presents a post-apocalyptic landscape that is calmer than most post-apocalyptic fiction and less filled with threats to characters’ physical survival, such as that of hostile, armed individuals or groups that engage in brutal competition for scarce resources.

This can be attributed in part to the fact that the novel skips forward in time to about twenty years after the apocalypse, where most of the post-apocalyptic storyline takes place. It is not that a period of instability and violent conflict did not exist in the universe of the book. In fact, many characters make reference to a period of darkness and horrors that characterised the turbulent first few years after the collapse of civilisation. However, the author’s decision to gloss over the details of that period and instead focus on the later years shows an interest in examining the new ways of life that are established after some time has been allowed for people to regain a semblance of stability, rather than telling a story about physical conflicts and the threat of violence.

There is a central antagonist, a “prophet” and his cult that present a physical danger to members of the Travelling Symphony especially as the story progresses, but this conflict is only one of many points of interest which the novel focuses on and in itself has a deeper meaning than simply the struggle for survival. Perhaps this can be seen most clearly in how the climactic moment in which Kirsten confronts her imminent death at the prophet’s hands is resolved with words, in an unexpected turn of events where Kirsten’s quoting of the comic series Dr Eleven results in the prophet being killed by one of his own cult members. The climactic quality of this scene is as much a result of the physical conflict as the unexpected revelation that the prophet and his cult derived their religious ideology in part from Dr Eleven. This points to the novel’s relative lack of interest in depicting fights and violence, in favour of examining the complex relations and meaning that people assign to cultural artefacts, of which the comic is one.

Focus on Arts and Culture:

Station Eleven’s interest in culture and the arts can be seen in how it follows the stories and lives of artists, actors and musicians and their artistic creations. One plot thread follows the aforementioned comic series, Dr Eleven, from its creation and conceptualisation by Miranda in the days before the apocalypse, to the way it survives the apocalypse and ends up a treasured possession of Kirsten as she travels with the Symphony. The story of how Kirsten and Miranda are connected, and how a copy of Dr Eleven ends up in the hands of both Kirsten and the prophet, is revealed in pieces throughout the course of the novel.

This depiction of how an ordinary comic series by an independent creator can go on to affect the lives of future generations in dramatic ways is a poignant illustration of how even individual, personal projects can go on to have great influence on the people who later discover it, find themselves fascinated by it, and create their own meaning out of it.

Another separate plot thread depicts the Travelling Symphony and the way in which they travel the post-apocalyptic world and bring performances of Shakespeare and classical music to the small towns they pass through, preserving and continuing the rich heritage of music and theatre that was a feature of the pre-apocalyptic world. This underscores the continued importance of the arts in this book’s vision of a world in which modern civilisation has collapsed.

Finally, much of the story is also focused on Arthur Leander, an actor who dies on stage while performing King Lear in the opening scene of the book. The rest of the novel includes flashbacks to depictions of Arthur’s life as a high-profile Hollywood celebrity and his relationships with his three ex-wives. On the whole, these many diverse portrayals of the arts in the universe of the book and the ways in which a post-apocalyptic world tries to preserve as well as reinterpret and adapt artistic activity shows the book’s intricate contemplation of the role of art in human society.

The apocalypse in this case is not the focus of the story, but is used as a plot device to speculate on a world in which many aspects of society’s structure have been changed. What is left is the sparse numbers of people who make up this re-structured society, who remember the old word and continue to value art as a means of capturing the imagination and bringing meaning and joy to people’s lives.

Highlighting Ordinary Aspects of Everyday Life:

In addition to the value of art, Station Eleven also emphasises the value of more ordinary aspects of modern civilisation. It depicts a post-apocalyptic landscape in which much of modern technology and the functionality of objects we use in our everyday life have been lost. In this way, it draws readers’ attention to aspects of our lives that we often take for granted by highlighting the characters’ longing for it in its absence. In one scene, Kirsten flips the light switch of an abandoned house despite knowing it would have no effect, and tries to remember what it was like to have light flood the room. In another, she recounts her memories of things such as

“hot air coming out of vents in the winter”, “machines that played music”, and “what computers looked like with the screen lit up”.

Besides the characters’ thoughts, the omniscient narration itself also directly highlights to the reader which aspects of the world have been lost. Chapter six of the book, for instance, consists entirely of “an incomplete list” of what is no more in the post-apocalyptic world, including things as diverse as

  • swimming in pools,
  • taking photographs of concert stages,
  • pharmaceuticals,
  • countries,
  • fire departments, and
  • the Internet.

By bringing up these everyday aspects of modern society and technology that are familiar to the average reader, the novel creates a sense of being connected to readers’ real lives and highlights the value of these man-made creations. It reminds readers that although they might take these things for granted, they are not simply natural features of the world but reflect accomplishments of human culture and civilisation, and hence are valuable and should be cherished.

Optimistic View of the Future:

Finally, the novel presents an optimistic outlook on the future as it depicts characters’ concrete attempts to preserve and re-create aspects of human civilisation. The process of preserving artefacts and memorialising the old world can be seen in Clark’s creation of a Museum of Civilization in what used to be the Severn City Airport. Starting out as a glass display case in the Skymiles Lounge containing objects such as an

“iPhone, a pair of five-inch red stiletto heels, and a snow globe”,

it became a place to store objects that no longer had any practical use but that people wanted to preserve. The airport also came to house a school where children were educated about aspects of the old world like flight and the Internet. In this way, the book highlights how people living in the post-apocalyptic world continued to value the preservation of their history in much the same way as we educate our children about the past today.

Furthermore, the success of people’s active efforts to re-create and rebuild civilisation can be seen in how a newspaper came to be published, and electric lights of a town were observed in the distance through the airport’s telescope. The novel ends off on an elderly Clark’s hopeful contemplation of the possibilities of civilisation. Such an optimistic picture of humanity’s ability to recover and rebuild civilisation is characteristic of the novel’s focus on the inherent value of human culture and creations.


In conclusion, I have examined the way in which Station Eleven eschews the expected conventions of apocalyptic fiction in its lack of emphasis on physical survival of humanity and tension created by violent conflict. Instead, its primary concern is with the many diverse aspects of human culture, civilisation and the arts, and it pushes for a view of human nature that highlights the inherent value in and potential of human creation. This unique approach and use of the apocalypse in a matter-of-fact, realistic way is an interesting and unusual move for a work of apocalyptic fiction.