Book review: Station Eleven

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought Station Eleven as a daily deal and went in with no expectations.

I’m not exactly a post-apocalypse aficionado but very much enjoyed this vignette-style book that begins on the eve of a deadly flu that kills most of the world’s population, then jumps back and forth over the next twenty years, covering its aftermath primarily through the lives of The Traveling Symphony, a group that has banded together to travel around the Great Lakes area, performing Shakespeare and classical music to the small communities that arise after society’s collapse.

While there is a main thread to follow in the story’s present day, the author frequently jumps into the past (including the pre-flu era), yet the narrative never gets bogged down or confusing. Instead, Emily St. John Mandel carefully assembles the characters, their intertwined lives, hopes and ideas as a tapestry where everything is connected in some way, the titular comic Station Eleven, created by a character who succumbs to the flu in a delirium while on a beach in Malaysia, being the main linking device. The link is both literal–it goes from its creator to her ex-husband, an actor, then to a child who grows up to be a member of The Traveling Symphony–and metaphorical, as its science fiction tale depicts a split among people living on an artificial moon whose environmental systems have malfunctioned. It’s perhaps not a deep metaphor, but it is effective.

There is violence and madness in the post-collapse world but rather than being a grim depiction of a possible future, we are presented with the notion that some–maybe even most–want to do more than merely survive. A career therapist constructs a “museum of civilization” at an airport, gathering the detritus of our modern lives now rendered useless–iPhones, laptops, credit cards–to remember what humans had achieved. The Traveling Symphony, in its caravan of gutted motor vehicles, now drawn by horses, bears a quote on one of the wagons from Star Trek: Voyager of all things: “Survival is insufficient.” It is these three words that best exemplify the drive of the characters, the need to not merely manage in the post-plague world, but to keep art alive, to nurture the mind and spirit as human civilization re-shapes and mends itself.

It’s a hopeful message and Station Eleven is ultimately a hopeful story. Recommended.

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