An Air Gradia jetliner rolls slowly down the tarmac at a crowded airport, past the teeming gates and packed terminals. It weaves a careful path to the farthest reach of the concrete, to the most isolated location possible, before it comes to a stop. Its doors never open.
Of the many indelible images of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, that airplane is burned most deeply into my mind. It arrives deep into the novel during a flashback to those first few days of chaos as a pandemic is wiping out 99% of humanity.
The fictional Georgia Flu is easily communicable—it can be transmitted by air—and ruthlessly efficient; the time from infection to fatality is measured in hours, not days. As air travel chauffeurs the deadly agent around the globe, airports become quarantine zones and an airplane carrying infected passengers becomes a crypt.
The first mention of the Air Gradia’s fate is simple and sparse, mechanical in its description. It leaves the horror of the situation unspoken for the reader to intuit and imagine. I can’t stop thinking about it. Later, a character struggles as I did to push those imaginings out of his mind:
“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.”
At the time of its release in 2014 Station Eleven was widely, and rightfully, praised. Mandel’s fourth novel is a stunning, literary dystopia that portrays the silence of a fallen world and the few hardened survivors who inhabit it. The handful of reviews that raised material criticisms, notably The New York Times Book Review and The Guardian, suggest that the book does not communicate the “urgency and panic of global disaster” but this critique seems misguided.
Station Eleven is quiet by design. Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world is dark and hard but it does not live exclusively in grim misery like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or in the chaotic bombast of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Its apocalyptic events are experienced by characters in varying degrees of isolation or by those who are viewing the pandemic as an incident two decades in the past. The survival of the former group is dependent upon their seclusion from “urgency and panic” while the latter group lives in a world that is desolate and vacant, exploring silent, empty places as the last survivors of a race that has all but vanished.
The reticence of Mandel’s destroyed world runs counter to the frenetic tropes so commonly seen in post-apocalyptic fiction but that reserved tone is fitting: Wouldn’t a world whose population has been reduced to a mere fraction of its former density be a quiet place? By setting her story apart from the tumult of a collapsing society, Mandel gives her characters—and her readers—a chance to slow down and consider what has been lost and what should be saved.