Station Eleven | Emily St. John Mandel
Following two story arcs, one before and one after the Georgia Flu, an epidemic that wipes out an estimated 90% of the global population, Station Eleven is not quite your average post-apocalyptic novel.
I was expecting it to follow the tropes of its genre a little bit more: the cause of the collapse to society, the disintegration of human values, the survivors and those trying to and succeeding in rebuilding society. A little bit of chaos but ultimately the heroes winning. Although the book featured all of these things, St. John Mandel gives a new perspective to the apocalypse. She zooms out of the apocalyptic landscape and focuses on a set of interrelated characters both before and after the so-called collapse, cleverly weaving their stories together. We see not only what life was like before the breakdown of society but how the apocalypse has changed the world and humans and what is valued in the new world.
The book opens on the day that the flu hits Toronto and spreads throughout North America, with a performance of King Lear. We are introduced to some of the characters, Arthur Leander an actor who is playing King Lear, Jeevan Chaudary a paparazzo turned paramedic who sits in the audience and Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress who is also part of the performance. The first post-flu chapter introduces you to the Travelling Symphony where Kirsten now performs. The Symphony tours the country performing songs, symphonies and Shakespeare because, as they say ‘Survival is insufficient’. Pulled from a Star Trek episode, this is the Symphony’s motto and I adored this quote. It summarises the difference between surviving and living; creating art. This is at the heart of the novel: humanity cannot base existence on survival alone.
Told in a non-linear fashion, alternating chapters tell the story of characters before and after the collapse. The pre-collapse chapters feature Arthur Leander’s story, his first wife Miranda and the writing of her graphic novel Station Eleven. The post-collapse story arc follows the Travelling Symphony as it moves through towns in North America, performing for townspeople, and eventually, running away from a self-proclaimed Prophet. The book connects the characters not only through their relationships and interactions, but through objects too. Station Eleven, the graphic novel, survives the apocalypse. It is a constant in both story arcs and, as it is misunderstood in the post-apocalyptic world, it gains symbolic power and status (as do many inane objects and ideas after the collapse). There is a sense of dramatic irony as you, the reader, see how everything connects and a real sense of satisfaction that comes with it.
The one criticism I have of this book is the convenience of the disease that wipes out most of humanity. Named after its country of origin, the Georgia Flu merely functions as a plot device – a means of getting the characters to the apocalypse without the distraction of war, nuclear fallout or zombies. The realities of disease are mostly ignored – why did the survivors survive? Did the disease die with its victims or are all the survivors simply immune? The book ignores these questions so that it can focus on the story. It allows for a soft reset of humanity; widespread death and the loss of modern luxuries and technological advancement leaving just the skeletons of life. It works to a certain extent, but it feels a little bit lazy. A few lines here and there explaining the survivors’ immunity would have sufficed.
Ultimately I really enjoyed this book. I couldn’t decipher where it was heading next or quite how it was going to connect these people. I would definitely recommend reading it! Oh, and shout out to Emily St. John Mandel who writes incidental characters of colour. Art reflecting life.