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Literature / Station Eleven

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Survival is Insufficient

Station Eleven is a Post Apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel and published in 2014. In the novel, a pandemic known as the "Georgia Flu" wipes out somewhere north of 99% of human life on Earth, ending civilization as we know it. Twenty years later, a band of survivors known as the "Traveling Symphony" have come together to preserve what remains of the world's music and theater, and perform it in towns that have begun to resettle the Midwestern American landscape.

Kirsten Raymonde was eight years old when she landed her first theatrical role in a Toronto performance of King Lear, starring famed actor Arthur Leander in the title role. The night the Georgia Flu arrived in the city, Arthur died of a sudden heart attack while onstage. Kirsten survived the deadly disease, wandering throughout what was once Michigan for some time before joining the Traveling Symphony at fifteen, inspired by her memories of Arthur.

Twenty years after the pandemic, several of her fellow actors and musicians from the Traveling Symphony disappear near the town of St. Deborah by the Water, where a violent, mysterious prophet and his followers have set up camp in the two years since the Symphony last passed through. In an attempt to find and rescue her friends, who Kirsten believes may have fled to a mysterious "Museum of Civilization", Kirsten is separated from the Symphony, and must survive the wilderness and the new cultists in order to save her friends and herself.

The novel also uses flashbacks to describe life before the pandemic, detailing the lives of those close to Arthur Leander. Particular attention is given to Arthur's first wife Miranda, the author of a graphic novel series called "Station Eleven" (which has found its way into Kirsten's hands so many years later); Clark, Arthur's oldest friend; and Jeevan, a paparazzo-turned-paramedic who faces his own struggle to survive and find fulfillment in a radically changed world.

Station Eleven has won several awards, and is both a National Book Award finalist and a Pen/Faulker Award finalist.

In 2021, the book was adapted to a 10-episode miniseries for HBO Max, starring Mackenzie Davis as Kirsten.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Dieter dies from a bad reaction to chloroform while being taken as a hostage by the Prophet and his party.
  • Agonizing Stomach Wound: The Prophet shoots a woman in the stomach "just to cause her pain" after she refuses to become the wife of one of his followers.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: How the prophet gets his wives.
  • Anyone Can Die: Well, 99% of the human race dies in the Georgia Flu pandemic. And even 20 years afterwards, characters can die suddenly and terribly.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 2. As far as the characters know, the whole world has reverted to a pre-industrial state.
  • Arc Symbol: Airplanes, most notably the Prophet carves them as scars onto his enemies.
  • Arranged Marriage: The prophet takes a new bride whenever he enters a new town.
  • Artistic License: Epidemiology - The Georgia Flu is so deadly than in reality it could not wipe out the world before killing its hosts. Understandable as a framing device to get to the post-apocalyptic society.
  • The Atoner: Arthur wasn't that bad of a guy (although he was prone to hurting people who loved him) but at the end of his life he was making an effort to reconnect with his son, and help the people around him more.
  • The Baby of the Bunch: Alexandra and Olivia (the six year old daughter of an actor named Lin and one of the musicians) both have elements of this for the Symphony.
  • Bearer of Bad News: Clark was the one who called Miranda to tell her Arthur died.
  • Better as Friends: Kirsten and August. They even made a pact about it.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Frank, and Kirsten's brother Peter both did everything they could for their siblings in those early days.
  • Blind Without 'Em: The seventh guitar's only pair of glasses broke six years ago and his vision is too blurry to read sheet music, or recognize people who step into his line of sight.
  • Born After the End: This book deals primarily in people who remember the old world, but there are still characters who don't remember, like Jeevan's kid (who he names after his dead brother Frank). It's common for them to grill the survivors on the luxuries of modern life (such as airplanes and cell phones) in disbelief, assuming that they're joking or lying. Clark mentions having a special relationship with Emmanuelle, the first child born in the airport.
  • Bury Your Disabled: The paraplegic Frank commits suicide rather than live in another war-zone; a mentally-ill woman who can't access her medication wanders out into the forest to die, but it's not clear if she deliberately committed suicide or if it was side effects from withdrawal.
  • Cassandra Truth: Happens a few times when Jeevan tries to warn people after hearing about the flu early on.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The paperweight Kirsten gets at the beginning of the novel turns out to be the same one that Arthur gives to Miranda in a significant flashback scene. Miranda returned it several years after their breakup, Arthur gave it to his new girlfriend (the theater employee baby-sitting Kirsten), and she gave it to Kirsten after Arthur died to get rid of a painful reminder of his loss.
  • Closest Thing We Got: Jeevan was studying to be a paramedic during the flu, and given how hard it hit the veteran doctor, at one point the text actually calls him "the closest thing to a doctor in a hundred mile radius".
  • The Confidant: Subverted with Arthur's friend Victoria. They corresponded for a while, with him continuing to send letters long after she stopped replying, treating her a bit like a diary. She eventually turns those letters into a book, and Arthur is a little hurt, but feels he probably deserved it.
  • Connected All Along: The Prophet is Arthur's son.
  • Cosy Catastrophe:
    • The Georgia Flu that kills off 99.99% of humanity and destroys civilization as we know it sets the stage for a narrative on art and resilience of the human spirit via a traveling Shakespeare troupe, twenty years post-collapse.
    • At the center of the story is Arthur Leander, a Hollywood burnout who dies in the first scene but is survived by his ex-wife, son, best friend, and mentee, all of whom remain untouched by the virus.
  • Creepy Child: Arthur's son Tyler. Eleanor also comes off as this at first.
  • Cult Defector: It's mentioned in passing that many of the younger members of The Traveling Symphony (including some major characters) were members of various doomsday cults in the years after The Plague before breaking away from them and joining the acting troupe. In the main story, one of the Prophet's younger followers is clearly upset by most of what they do, unsuccessfully asks to leave with the Symphony when they depart town and ultimately kills the Prophet to protect Kirsten and her friends.
  • Cultured Badass: Kirsten, the conductor, and most other members of the Symphony. Even the fifteen-year-old knows how to handle a gun.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Jeevan's son, Frank, is named after his dead brother. Charlie and Jermey named their daughter after Charlie's sister.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The traveling troupe of actors the story is advertised as following aren't the people Arthur was performing with (save for Kirsten), who do get some focus during the first few chapters, but mostly die from the flu.
  • Defector from Decadence: August, Viola, and Eleanor the Cellist were all members of cults or gangs at various times in the years after the fall before wising up and running off.
  • Disaster Scavengers: Kirsten and her friend August specialize in this.
  • Doorstop Baby: Alexandra, the Symphony's youngest actress, was found as a baby, abandoned on the side of the road.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • Miranda predicts Kirsten will grow up to be unadventurous and well-groomed during their brief meeting when she visits Arthur at the theater. She then is totally changed by the Georgia Flu, and ends up venturing all over America, close to feral, for survival.
    • One of the first people to see (and appreciate, on some level) Miranda's unfinished comic book is Elizabeth, who Arthur later divorces Miranda for.
    • When Jeevan is a Paparazzi Miranda and he have an unpleasant confrontation which involves her asking him if he finds fulfillment and purpose in what he does. The first job he does find that fulfillment and purpose in is being a paramedic, which he fully realizes while attempting to save Arthur's life after he collapses on stage.
  • Dying Alone:
    • Arguably Arthur, some of his castmates and associates discuss who to notify they observe that he's divorced, his son is too young to notify and not too close with him, they know nothing about his brother back in British Columbia and his current girlfriend (one of the stage workers) already knows. In the end they end up having to call his lawyer, which the bartender comments on as sad.
    • Shortly after learning of Arthur's death, Miranda slowly succumbs to the Georgia Flu, culminating in her dying alone watching the sunrise on a Malaysian beach.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": A number of characters are known solely by their function. The conductor of the Traveling Symphony prefers to be called "the conductor." One of the viola players changes her name to "Viola." The prophet abandons his given name.
  • Every Scar Has a Story: Survivors tattoo a knife on their forearm whenever they've murdered anyone. A major plot point is that it's nearly impossible to live your whole life in the post-pandemic world without killing. However, In spite of people like the Prophet, things have been improving lately, to the point where fifteen-year-old Alexandra has no tattoos and Kirsten believes that she'll never have to get any.
  • Family of Choice: Not a happy version. Most people - including Jevaan, Kirsten, and Clark - have lost their whole families. Jevaan remarries, Clark forms a genuinely safe community in the airport, and Kirsten joins the Travelling Symphony, but all of them remain marked by their losses.
  • invoked Fatal Method Acting: Arthur Leander dies onstage during a performance of "King Lear."
  • For Want Of A Nail: Common, but one example would be the death of Kirsten's brother, Peter, who dies after stepping on a literal nail and some deaths in the airport. He doubles as a Hero of Another Story for how much he protects Kirsten from.
  • Frontline General: The Prophet does go out hunting for people with his men.
  • The Ghost: Lydia, Arthur's third wife.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: Subverted, when the clarinet disappears, she leaves behind a note which initially seems to be a possible suicide or goodbye note, but is later revealed to be the opening monologue from a play she'd been trying to write.
  • Genre Savvy: Jeevan stocks up on goods at the beginning of the pandemic and avoids other people, being aware of the looting and violence that occurs in fictional apocalypses.
  • Gratuitous French: The Viola Player likes to sprinkle her conversations with French phrases (something that annoys Kirsten). It's eventually revealed that due to her Dark and Troubled Past she thought that since it had all happened in English, so to speak, it might seem less real to her if she adapted and thought in another language.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The prophet's youngest recruit shoots him before he can kill Kirsten.
  • Hero of Another Story:
    • Jevaan's brother, Frank, who is paralyzed while a journalist in the Middle East, and who commits suicide days into the outbreak.
    • Kirsten's brother, Peter, who is The Ghost and protects her in the first year she can't remember, and dies before the story starts.
    • Jevaan's wife and her people, who are co-workers who were on a company retreat, during the outbreak and managed to find an abandoned motel that they later turned into a thriving, peaceful settlement.
    • One of the last pilots at the airport, who goes to Los Angeles, looking for his family, and takes a lot of others, who want to be closer to their own families, west of the Rocky Mountains.
    • The Viola Player spent a while biking out of Connecticut, was attacked by bandits, spent time as part of a gang of feral bandits before leaving them and walking a hundred miles before eventually coming across the Symphony.
  • Hidden Elf Village: The Severn Airport Museum, to an extent, although they don't try to hide knowledge that they're out there from the world.
  • Hit So Hard, the Calendar Felt It: The Georgia Flu epidemic rewinds the calendar to Year Zero. The main action apparently takes place in what we'd consider the mid-twenty-first century, but it's universally known as Year Twenty.
  • Hollywood Old: Averted, Arthur comments that one of the benefits of getting old is that he can actually play King Lear convincingly.
  • Human Notepad: Clark notes this of Charlie, "Tattoos covered almost every inch of her bare arms. He saw flowers, musical notes, names in an elaborate scroll, a rabbit. Four knives tattooed in a row on her right forearm."
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After Arthur collapses and dies, several of his cast and crew-mates go to the nearest bar to morosely drink, and talk about who to call.
  • The Immune: Some survivors, like Ben (a man Javeen briefly travels with) who unsuccessfully nursed his parents and sisters after they got sick at a point when the hospitals were collapsing but never sickened himself.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Francois Diallo, who has been restarting, and distributing a newspaper with old school printing presses. Several chapters show excerpts of an interview he has with Kirsten.
  • It's a Small World, After All: Kirsten, Clark and Arthur's son Tyler all converging on a small Mid-Western airport twenty years after the apocalypse.
  • I've Come Too Far: Hinted by the Prophet's last words, when he shows signs of being affected by Kirsten quoting Station Eleven but then cocks his gun anyway.
    Kirsten: We have been lost for so long. We long only for the world we were born into.
    The Prophet: But it's too late for that.
  • Justified Criminal: The survivors at the airport quickly run out of food but are still reluctant to just take the food that doesn't belong to them. This is eventually resolved when one man puts his credit card on the counter to pay for it all in case anyone ever comes back. The narration notes that it remains lying there for the next three months, and obviously, was never used.
  • Knight Templar: The prophet and his followers, who all believe they were spared from the pandemic because they were chosen by God for some greater purpose. They often kill or exile villagers who refuse to be assimilated into their cult.
  • Light Is Not Good: The prophet has blond hair and refers to himself and his followers as 'the light'. He also tries to force a twelve-year-old into marriage.

  • Living Is More than Surviving: The motto of the Traveling Symphony, "Survival is Insufficient," carries this message.
  • Mama Bear: After members of the Symphony start disappearing, Lin tells her daughter Olivia to remain not just within her sight form now on, but within her reach.

  • May–December Romance: Arthur is twelve years older than Miranda.
  • Mean Character, Nice Actor: Several of the Travelling Symphony, and the group Arthur was performing with when he died given how many villains there are in Shakespeare plays. It's even lampshaded that the actress playing Goneril looks a lot less evil without the makeup.
  • Military Brat: August, before the collapse.
  • Mundane Object Amazement: The displays in the Museum of Civilization include credit cards, cell phones, stiletto heels, engine blocks, a motorcycle, and newspapers.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • The effects of the Georgia Flu are only vaguely described, other than that it has a very short incubation period and kills very efficiently.
    • It's also stated that riots and gang violence are why Kirsten, Jeevan, and others had to abandon Toronto, but this is never shown in the actual novel.
    • Clark remembers that the first year in the airport was horrible, but it's never shown nor specified what happened.
    • The hospitals get overrun but it's never shown, and only heard through one oblique phone call with one of Jeeven's friends.
    • Several members of the Travelling Symphony are mentioned to have joined, and left, cults after the apocalypse but there are not details provided of their experiences or why they left
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: One of the Prophet's hunters is mentioned as not being a true believer, and only helping him because his sister is one of the Prophet's wives.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The airplanes full of corpses, who were locked inside after some passengers showed symptoms on the flight. Although, as Clark notes, that's no guarantee that everybody died of the Georgia Flu, which leaves the distinct possibility that some people were alive in there for days or even weeks.
  • One-Steve Limit: Apparently there are multiple, independent cult leaders calling themselves The Prophet running around, although only one actually plays a role in the story.
  • The Plague: The Georgia Flu. Anyone who catches it dies in days.
  • Plane Awful Flight: Played for Horror. While none of the horrific flights are ever shown, the always-deadly Georgia Flu spreads extremely fast and it spreads especially quickly in confinement. As a result, it becomes completely commonplace once the flu originates for airplanes to ground and never open. Clark frequently hopes that everyone is dead.
    Don't think of that unspeakable decision, to keep the jet sealed rather than expose a packed airport to a fatal contagion. Don't think about what enforcing that decision may have required. Don't think about those last few hours on board.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Kirsten and August.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Dog: The prophet has a dog named Luli.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Traffic Jam: Several are mentioned throughout. Kirsten encounters one while scouting a highway overpass.
    The highway was miles of permanent gridlock, with small trees growing now between cars and thousands of windshields reflecting the sky. There was a skeleton in the driver's seat of the nearest car.
  • Punk Rock: Dieter, of the Symphony was playing in a college punk rock band during the collapse and mourns the loss of the electric guitar.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Some things in the world have decayed as expected, while other things are not. The text bounces around a little.
    • Legible road signs are mentioned, despite being out in the sun for 20 years (Road signs generally last 15 years, and most signs had probably been installed years before the flu).
    • Other things have retained their color despite being in the sun (orange cones and barriers near the airport).
    • The large glass windows at the airport seem to still be largely intact after over 20 years.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Mostly all justified examples -
    • One of the men Kirsten killed is implied to have tried to rape her.
    • The villain, the Prophet, marries children and takes them as his "wives".
    • Soon after the collapse the airport exiles it's first rapist.
  • Repressed Memories: Kirsten remembers nothing from the year after the collapse.
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • Where did the Georgia Flu come from? It's first reported in Georgia, but none of the characters know anything about how it started.
    • Why didn't any of the people stuck at the airport get sick, when all of the other airplanes were locked up specifically because there were infected people on them?
  • The Runaway: Twelve-year-old Eleanor stows away with the Symphony to avoid being married to the prophet and successfully begs not to be sent back when they find her.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Lots of families fled town once the Prophet took over.
  • Serendipitous Survival:
    • Some people survived the flu due to isolation. When Miranda gets sick she observes several ships out in the harbor who hadn't sent anyone ashore before the flu spread and thinks that by now they'll know about it and have a chance. The Third Cello of the Traveling Symphony and his parents rode out the flu in an isolated cabin (although his diabetic parents eventually died after running out of insulin).
    • Some also survive from sheer luck, such as Clark, Elizabeth, and everyone else just happening to be in the airport rather than on one of the abandoned flights.
  • Shoot the Medic First: While obviously there's no person doing it, medical professionals are quickly infected while trying to treat the Georgia Flu, with quite a few of them dying the first day, based on the phone calls Jeevan gets from his friend Hua (who is coughing himself in the last one).
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: There are several rivalries within the Traveling Symphony, including the first and third violins being bitter over an argument about who used the last of the rosin. Kirsten resents Viola's Gratuitous French.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Several, but most notably, Eleanor only appears in a handful of chapters, but it is due to her actions of stowing away in the caravan to avoid becoming one of the Prophet's Brides that cause him to pursue them, after he'd never tried to stop anyone leaving before.
  • Small Town Boredom: Arthur, as a kid.
  • Sole Surviving Scientist: Dr. Eleven, in the Story Within a Story, who was behind the Homeworld Evacuation and survival station. In-universe, early on the Traveling Symphony finds a man trying to recreate the internet, who does have a bicycle-powered computer working. They wish him well but aren't optimistic towards his long-term success, although the ending might imply that he does have a chance as other towns are seen restoring technology.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: A more bittersweet example than most (due to the possibility the baby is a Child by Rape); a pregnant young woman is seen lounging outside of a building where it's later mentioned that the Prophet (who dies in the climax) and his wives stay.
  • Stage Mom: It's only relayed secondhand, but Kirsten's mom spends her one meeting with Arthur trying to get another acting job for her eight-year-old daughter. Arthur is left rather soured by the encounter and thinking that she should let Kirsten have more moments of normalcy.
  • Stealth Expert: The members of the prophet's cult specialize in this. They capture several members of the Symphony so quickly and silently that others mere feet away don't see it happen.
    • The clarinet player is also noted as one of the symphony's best hunter and manages to slip out of the Prophet's camp and run down the road with her arms tied behind her back, without making a sound, soon after waking up.
  • "Stuck at the Airport" Plot: Exaggerated. During the first outbreak of Georgia Flu, Clark boards a plane that is redirected to the Severn City Airport due to the pandemic. The passengers are then stranded there for the next two decades. Seeing as 99% of the population has died, and the world has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it's not like they have anywhere else to go.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: One of the main impetuses of the plot. The vast majority of human civilization dies...and, as a result, nobody can access medicine or other necessary implements. For example, a woman commits suicide because she doesn't have enough of her antidepressants.
  • That Man Is Dead: The Prophet puts up a grave marker for anyone who flees his town and acts as if they are dead.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Due to his appearance, backstory and knowledge of Station Eleven, Clark strongly suspects that The Prophet is Tyler and he's probably right.
  • Wasteland Elder: Clark is at the airport, waiting for a plane, when The Plague hits, and ends up staying there afterward. Twenty years later, Clark is one of the oldest surviving characters featured in the story and has turned the airport into a thriving community and museum of the past.
  • Wham Line: Several, including:
    Of all of them 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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out how Elizabeth, Arthur's second wife, died (or even if she did for sure) after leaving the airport, but this is justified because in the post-pandemic world, death is cheap. Plot-relevant in the case of Kirsten's parents and Jeevan's girlfriend, Laura; all they know about them is that they went into Toronto during the workday and never came back. They might have gotten ill or been killed in the descent into madness.
    • One pilot at the airport decides to just fly around the area, doing a little reconnaissance, promising to come back, but ultimately never does.
    • Several of Arthur and Kirsten's cast and crewmates from the beginning of the story are said to have died from the flu, but others just vanish with their fates unrevealed.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Several chapters are composed entirely of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the pre-pandemic lives of Miranda, Jeevan, and others, a very few chapters set during'' the pandemic, as well as the exploits of the Traveling Symphony before their arrival in St. Deborah at the Water.
  • Wild Child: A common fate for survivors. Kirsten is an example.