Miranda works as an administrative assistant at a shipping company, but she fills the swathes of free time that her job allows by sketching an imaginary world, Station Eleven, and its hero, Dr Eleven: 'Station Eleven is the size of Earth's moon and was designed to resemble a planet... The station's artificial sky was damaged in the war, however, so on Station Eleven's surface it is always sunset or twilight or night... the only land remaining is a series of islands that once were mountaintops... There are people who, after fifteen years of perpetual twilight, long only to go home, to return to Earth... They live in the Undersea, an interlinked network of vast fallout shelters under Station Eleven's oceans.' Her boyfriend, Pablo, doesn't understand her obsessive commitment to the project: 'You're always half on Station Eleven.' Miranda isn't interested in publishing the comics, seeking the peace she finds in retreating to Station Eleven rather than acclaim or recognition, but eventually, she has a few copies printed of the first two issues. These two comics make their way into the hands of Kirsten, who is a small girl when a virus devastates the world that she knows, killing the vast majority of the Earth's population. Twenty years later, as part of a travelling theatre company, the Travelling Symphony. Kirsten wanders across a largely empty Canada, with the Station Eleven comics one of her few constants: 'The first issue falls open to a two-page spread. Dr Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight... A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on earth.'
The most obvious way to read the Station Eleven story that intertwines with the major plot of Station Eleven, then, is as an allegory for the situation of the human survivors of the virus. While they are still on Earth, this is not the Earth they once knew; younger people can hardly believe that there was once a world where aeroplanes flew, linked by the magical, ethereal Internet. They are the unfortunate inhabitants of the Undersea. However, the Station Eleven references are so powerful in themselves that I found this interpretation unsatisfying. Like Miranda, I was engrossed in Station Eleven, and continuously longed, while reading this novel, to return there, away from the harsher realities of a post-apocalyptic world. (As an aside, I should say that this is an enormously difficult feat to pull off. Emily St John Mandel has somehow overcome the reader's natural imaginative resistance to truly committing to a story within a story, and that alone makes this novel special, even though it has plenty more going for it as well). The Travelling Symphony offers a similar justification for continuing to perform Shakespeare: when one of their members, 'the clarinet', wants 'to write something modern, something which addressed this age in which they'd landed', the idea is implicitly rejected, in the same way as Kirsten rejects the idea that they should perform in ordinary clothes rather than salvaged costumes to bring them 'closer' to their audience.
A lot of the reviews of this novel have seized on the Travelling Symphony's motto, cribbed from Star Trek, 'Survival is insufficient', and argued that Station Eleven is about the power of art to save us even from times of great hardship. While I think that this is part of what the novel is saying, I think this reading - which barely mentions Station Eleven - is insufficient. To me, Station Eleven had a lot to say about the relationship of art to 'real life', questioning the idea that bad art is 'escapist' while good art makes us reflect more closely on the society which we are currently enduring. Both the Station Eleven comics and the Shakespeare plays obviously have both functions for our scattered survivors. The importance of Station Eleven is not just that it tells us truths about ourselves in a narrowly-allegorical sense but because it is a deeply-imagined, alternative world which we can inhabit, and learn from that. Shakespeare isn't a joy because he also lived in a plague-ridden society, but because art is more than a series of parallels to draw. The conclusion I have to come to is that stripping Station Eleven down too vigorously, to interrogate it for what it is 'trying' to tell us, is also to rob it of some of its magic.