Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

On Worldbuilding: or Why Station Eleven nearly Hit the Wall


The more I write and read SF the more I realise that the world in which a story is set is a character in the story – that background matters to me as a reader and a writer very much, and I think this is true of many other readers.

Worldbuilding is thus an essential element of any book that is classified, whether by writer, readers or critics, as science fiction. It’s a curious skill, not unlike scientific research in some ways. You have to test your world against a variety of questions or thought experiments. If you want a scenario where evil space mining corporations want to strip mine a planet for valuable metal ores you need to explain why they can’t just do this with metal rich asteroids and avoid the (necessary to the plot) oppression of the natives.

Similar questions should be asked about the worldbuidling in fantasy as well. If you have knights wandering around in huge numbers to make your battlefields look spectacular you have to explain where their food and water come from, who made the arms and armour, and who is paying for it all.

This process isn’t just a matter of making the world deeper and more believable, it can also be a route to generating plot ideas. If a battalion of knights get their food supplies cut off there could be an interesting subplot where they have to live off the land and come into contact with the peasants who are suffering to pay for and supply their noble battles. How they interact with the peasants is a great opportunity for character development.

Worldbuilding can be hard work. For recent short stories I’ve published I know far more about their worlds than is on the page. Some of this may emerge in future projects – I’m sure this is a reason why genre writers often set several stories in the same universe – but that is far from guaranteed.

None of this should be news to writers working within the genre, though it is certainly true that some are better at worldbuilding than others. Problems arise, though, when writers who are not as experienced in the genre pay us a visit.

This brings us to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, winner of the 2015 Clarke Award.

I bought this largely on the strength of the award, which has made odd choices in the past but which usually picks something interesting. It’s been on my to-read shelf for a while and I finally got round to it this week.

The majority of the book (I am told) is set 20 years after a plague has devastated the world’s population, but with frequent flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of the plague. This is all ‘I am told’ since I didn’t get beyond the first ~30 pages.

The writing is certainly good, with nice characterisation and well described events and locations (one in fact not dissimilar to something that happened to my Dad several years ago). But there’s a severe problem with the plague that just bumped me out of the whole thing and broke the relationship I had with the book.

The plague that changes the world in ways necessary for the plot is very infectious and very fast acting. From the information in the first chapter it seems you can go from infection to death in about 8 hours. This isn’t without precedent – the 1919 flu pandemic apparently took some people from healthy to dead in 45 minutes – but the Station Eleven plague seems to do this to everyone.

However, the disease is brought to Toronto, where the opening is set, from Moscow on a flight that lasts 10 hours. Anybody who has ever flown knows that it’ll take you rather more than the flight time to get to the airport, check in, wait around departures, arrive, get through immigration, find your luggage and then get out of the airport. Toronto’s patient zero would thus probably have died on the flight and many of the other passengers would already be exhibiting symptoms on arrival, triggering medical alerts, quarantine and the end of the plague.

Of course this also ignores what happened back in Russia before patient zero boards the plane. Why aren’t people dropping like flies there? Or in Georgia where it is meant to have started? Are the Russian authorities so stupid that they want to ignore this problem in the hope that it will just go away? Books that rely on people being universally stupid to drive the plot don’t last long with me.

The problems don’t end there. A deadly and highly infectious disease is certainly something to worry about, but a disease that rapidly kills most of those who catch it is more easily dealt with than one that has a long incubation time (like AIDS). Quarantine works fantastically well for this. You take a hospital with infected patients, stop anybody leaving, and leave it for 48 hours before you send in the teams in hazmat suits. If it takes 8 hours to kill someone infected, after 2 days the only ones left will be survivors (or in Station Eleven‘s scenario, probably nobody). The same principle can be applied more broadly.

A city or nation-wide curfew for 48 hours, even if only weakly enforced, would have a huge impact on the spread of the pandemic, probably stopping it in its tracks. In the context of the book this would be even easier since Toronto is in the grip of a snow storm when the outbreak kicks off. Yes, many would die, and the world afterwards would be different, but the empty world of Station Eleven would not be the result – it would be more like the aftermath of the disease in the film Contagian than what the author was looking for. What gets into the book is a far more implausible plague scenario than the film Outbreak.

Working it out is not difficult. One single afternoon playing Plague Inc. can teach you this, which is why those of us who play the game are so happy when we manage to infect New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Madagascar.

When worldbuilding flaws are as deep and obvious as this I lose confidence in the entire fictional project. Yes, Mandel’s purpose with this book was not to write a virus-beating thriller. The plague is there to provide a backdrop for the changed world she wanted to work with. But if she can’t get simple things write about epidemiology why should I have confidence in anything else the writer is doing, from Shakespeare to the characters? To me, some fundamental contract with the reader is broken with the basic errors made in the first 30 pages.

And these flaws could be corrected fairly easily. The plague could simply work more slowly. If you want a sudden die off then it could be a two stage disease, with mild early symptoms and then a devastating collapse later, with the interim being a period of high infectivity. By the time people start dropping like flies it’s too late. There are actually disease that behave this way – anthrax is one, and there are more twisted options as well, such as syphilis and some of the herpes family. If the author had spoken to some scientists about her scenario this could all have been fixed. This is something I do with the Science for Fiction workshops.

Or the plague, like the war in McCarthy’s The Road could simply just be something that happened in the background, with no real details of how it happened. People could just start dying. No need to invoke the Russians, an impossible patient zero flying from there to Toronto, just a sudden devastating worldwide die off produced by an unknown infectious agent that doctors and scientists are too busy dying to determine or cure. I can buy that – the characters in the first 30 pages have no reason to know more than that. Only the writer wanted to tell me how it happened and got it wrong.

Station Eleven didin’t hit the wall but it nearly did. I’m actually rather surprised that the Clarke judges didn’t have the same reaction.


Edited: title misspelling corrected


Author: davecl

Astronomy, science, science fiction

4 thoughts on “On Worldbuilding: or Why Station Eleven nearly Hit the Wall

  1. If the plague was just there for a backdrop for the scenario, you could have just pretended that it had the virulence you convincingly argue for, and skip to the rest of the book. If the book had started “After the plague had wiped out nearly everyone…” would you have felt a bit cheated that you didn’t have the gory details?

    I grant you an annoying first encounter with the a book can sour your relation with it forever though

    • I’d have been happy if the book started in the aftermath as, I think, I said. But to put the plague in and get it so wrong just breaks my confidence in the work. After that, I just couldn’t carry on.

      Of course others mileage will vary.

  2. It’s amazing how the same facts come across totally differently to different people. I’m not unusually scientifically illiterate, but I knew nothing about incubation times for diseases, etc, so I didn’t notice there was even an issue here. I didn’t think to compare “10 hours” and “14 hours” and if they were significantly different, and I didn’t think to question if the disease would burn itself out — I just assumed there was some reason it made sense. (Could there be? Longer incubation time for some people or something?)

    Whereas there’s other books where I’ve noticed things that — to me — seem obviously completely and utterly unnatural, would never be seen. The example I’m thinking of is a small company where every few days, someone alone in the building is killed. I can imagine brushing it off once, or twice. After the third, fourth, fifth time, I literally can’t imagine people standing around saying “I wonder what’s happening?” and “We should go around in pairs, oh, except for right now, I have a lame excuse why not to”. There’s just no way people can do that. HOW DO THEY NOT TAKE THIS PROBLEM SERIOUSLY YET? Yet to other people, they didn’t even notice a problem.

    • I guess it comes from being used to doing quantitative checks on things. The writer could have put a lampshade on it in some way, but fixing the plane (maybe the dry air or reduced oxygen reduced infection rates?) doesn’t fix other issues like burn rate through the population, why Russia hadn’t done anything, or why the authorities in Canada did nothing. The plague motivates eveything else in the book, and yet it was so wrong – willing suspension of disbelief gone, never to return.

      As to your rising body count example – WTF? I work for a large organisation where somebody did die while working alone at night. There was a huge fuss, with new restrictions, HSE investigations etc. A series of deaths at a small company would cause even bigger problems. What sort of idiots do they have for management? What are the police up to? That book is not for me.

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