“If there is a nuclear war, I don’t want to live,” comedian David Mitchell said on Would I Lie To You? “I don’t want to come out of a shelter and try and rebuild society. I have no skills...How long, okay, society is destroyed by a nuclear war, how long in this, basically we’re back to the Bronze Age, how long is it going to be before people start pitching panel shows again? It’s going to be at least 2000 years.”
Luckily author Emily St John Mandel has thoroughly disregarded that idea in her book Station Eleven. The idea of a travelling band of nomads recovering after a cataclysm has shaken the foundations of life as we know it isn’t new. Yet she has created this world in which we follow a literal band, The Travelling Symphony, who have paired up with a group of a actors to put on Shakespeare and classical music shows all around North America. In a world where all of the convenience of our modern lives have faded out, we are shown a slice of their lives. Looking through the eyes of different characters and the use of overlapping timelines, we are able to see the before, during and after of the Georgia(country not state) Flu. Though she follows the idea that most people will take care of the basic needs, shelter, food and the like, she inserts the idea early on using a Star Trek Voyager quote: Survival is Insufficient. It isn’t enough to simply live from day to day. We see this in each character as they grow from making it day to day, to actually living. That of course is the whole point. To steal a line from Jurassic Park, "Life will find a way." That's is what we live for, the idea that no matter what life will go on.
Too often dystopian novels are grim and can be overwhelming. The darkness in humanity is always there and it can be focused on, to an extreme degree. The draw of dystopian stories for me is not the end of the world, or the prophecy of what can be, but the spark of life and goodness even though the world is going to pieces around the character’s ears. Station Eleven left me not only wanting more but also with a bit more faith in humanity. The idea that a sickness could spring up at any minute, is a worry that the modern world has always had to face due to overpopulation. Worse might be the leaders of certain faith groups that like to claim that any natural or sickness that kills many people is the work of God. There will always be cults of people in dystopia that believe that they survived not through chance or immunity but because they were better than those who died. We see this in Station Eleven and to the author’s credit she handles the inclusion of this in a brilliant fashion.
This isn’t the perfect dystopian novel, it’s a lovely post-apocalyptic choice but I felt it needed more. We are introduced to several characters that don’t reappear for an indecent amount of time. While I was drawn into the story, there were several times when I was left wondering how it was going to wrap back to certain characters. The ending did leave me wanting more closure, or at the very least the promise of a sequel. Station Eleven might not be for everyone, some might find the connecting story of Arthur Leander pointless and not really needed. While I could have done without it, it did provide a cord of connection between the characters that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. The 1st year after the Flu isn’t really hit upon in a strong way and one character flat out can’t remember what happened. I feel that it would have been easier to connect to the character is I had more understanding of her past. Instead I got a basic Strictly Need To Know block.
I would recommend this book to someone looking for a happy-ish ending and a dystopian novel. There isn’t much graphic violence until the climax, and the characters are obviously affected by their actions and their pasts. This is a nice change from the cold and impersonal killers I’ve had to get used to in this genre. There is a bit of an anti-God feel when it comes to the cults, but just because she didn’t write about a faith based town that wasn’t full on child-bride creepy, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist in her world. Though I checked this one out of my local library, Station Eleven is going on my Christmas list.
Just a bit about the Author: Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the Morning News Tournament of Books, and has been translated into 27 languages. A previous novel, The Singer's Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.
Freelance Editor & Reviewer