Fandom and Community: The Lesson from Station Eleven
Warning: this article contains spoilers from the book “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven, written by Emily St. John Mandel, is two story at once. The story of a bunch of people before a major, world ending pandemic happened, and the story of a bunch of people after.
Station Eleven is the title of a comic book written in the pre apocalypse world, by an unknown writer who we get to know throughout the story.
The comic book ends up in the hands of two different people in the post apocalypse world. Both are kind of obsessed with it and both attached value to it: it is determinant for their life choices, their way of conceptualise themselves and the world they live in.
Ultimately, the comic book ends up being a connection between three different people, who haven’t even spoke to each other.
Stories as connections is a whole theme in Station Eleven; the book is kind of didactic about it.
In the post apocalypse world we have the Traveling Company, a group of actors and actresses that goes around America to perform Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is kind of an obvious choice as he is probably the most iconic western writer, one that quintessentially portrayed the emotional spectrum of human kind. Moreover, Shakespeare wrote during the plague epidemic, a major event that also changed his life, as members of his family died of it. His shows were usually performed in the Globe Theatre, to this day, one of the most famous and iconic example of a “public” theatre, as it was cheaper compared to other theatres. The relevance of the Globe as a popular space for entertaining is also embodied by a fun fact; back in the days the money for the tickets were put in a box before entering to the theatre-this is why today not only we called the space we buy tickets “box office,” but it is also a term associated with public success of a movie/play.
The book itself openly breaks down to us readers this strong connection between the Traveling company and Shakespeare, making it very clear that what we are talking about here are connections, public spaces and how stories can travel through time and space.
The idea that a story can be a connection and a form of community has not been invented by Station Eleven.
In the ancient Greek world, theatre was considered a focal moment of community life. All the citizens had to attend, to the extent that a public fund existed as to let people who could not afford it attend.
The tragedies in particular were considered cathartic experiences. The public was supposed to relate to the protagonist, see him or her struggle and fight against themselves, the gods and their own inevitable destiny that usually forced them to commit atrocious and extreme gestures, feel for them, understand where they were coming from and then, in the end, elaborate the actions of the hero as not to repeat them. While tragedies were supposed to be warnings, there was a lot of empathy involved in the process before condemning the actions of the main character, as it was expected that the audience established a connection with the protagonist as to learn something from his/her story.
The theatre was a moment to reflect and metabolise the values of the community and ultimately, reinforce it.
Station Eleven actually stressed how pieces of media create communities though.
You have a comic book that has been read by three different people who have never met in person, actually living in two different time period and spaces.
You have a comic book that wasn’t even famous. It was not published, it was the passion project of a young woman who tried to emancipate herself from jobs she didn’t enjoy and oppressing relationships.
The value of her work lies in its power to communicate something that resonated with others to the point of establishing a connection, a bond so relevant that in the end, reveals itself to be life saving for one of the character.
Another way to describe the relationship between Tyler, Kirsten and Station Eleven is that the two are fans.
What are fandoms if not communities? Take Harry Potter fandom. As much as it happened in one of the book final moments, where Tyler quotes the comic book and Kirsten finishes the sentence, two hardcore Harry Potter fans too could recognise themselves over the shared understanding of the quote “always”.
And, as much as it happens with Station Eleven, there are no boundaries of time and space.
Look at Sherlock Holmes.
Written during the victorian era and published as a series, Sherlock Holmes was a popular sensation of the time. The audience developed such a strong bond with the story that, when Doyle got tired of writing it and decided to kill off the character, he was forced to bring him back.
Sherlock Holmes survived Doyle, not just by remaining to this day an extremely popular story. Movies were made out of the series, sequels written by other authors, spin offs, retellings; they started during Doyle’s time and they are to this day, still going on.
One of the latest tv adaptation with Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, was a massive hit. More than a century after the story was conceived, people still obsessed over it.
Doyle is dead and most of his works don’t even have copyright anymore. Sherlock Holmes keeps coming back just because people like him. To this day, its relevance and value is defined by the fact that its stories still resonate massively with the audience, and bear it mind that its own creator tried to finish him off once and failed. Sherlock is still alive just because apparently the audience cannot cope without him.
A community of fan is not defined by where they are or when the lived, but by the fact that they all found something of themselves or simply, solace in the story of a genius detective, as much as the story of a lonely spaceman resonated with Kirsten and Tyler in Station Eleven.
Therefore, the value of a story appears to be something very relative. It is not about popularity per se or style and quality; it is about whether what you were trying to communicate reach someone else and trigger something in them: a thought, an emotion whatever. It is the significance that people attached to it that makes it powerful.