Station Eleven was ones of those books which made it pretty big on BookTube. In all honesty, I had never heard of the author Emily ST. John Mandel before this, so I was pretty intrigued to see what all the fuss was about, especially as I had only heard high praise. I like science fiction, and I love literary fiction, so hearing this book described as both of those things only increased my desire to read it.
Station Eleven can be described as a post apocalyptic novel. The world has collapsed, destroyed by a deadly virus which had decimated civilisation and left the few remaining people fighting for survival. One group in particular, who are continuing to survive twenty years after the collapse, are the Traveling Symphony; a group of actors and musicians who travel to different settlements performing Shakespeare. In a time where everything appears to be lost, they bring with them a nostalgic familiarity of the past.
What I liked about the start of this book was the fact that it didn’t open with a clichéd apocalyptic world. The book does not start in media res, throwing us into this new world which we must navigate for ourselves. It actually starts in the past, before the virus has spread. We find ourselves on stage in Toronto as the famous actor Arthur Leander dies whilst performing King Lear. An interesting initiation to say the least! That same night the virus first touches down in North America, Arthur’s death acting perhaps as an omen of what is to come, of the fragility of life.
From this point, we watch through other characters as the world first becomes aware of the seriousness of the virus, whilst simultaneously following characters from twenty years after the virus. You might think this use of multiple timelines would be confusing, but Mandel has such control of her characters that each one is immediately distinguishable from the rest, as well as the situations surrounding them. In many ways, these conflicting timelines and characters, although somewhat linked, stop you becoming overly comfortable in your read, and keep you somewhat on your toes, much as the new world does for the characters. The flash backs also give you so much more to dig your teeth into where the characters are concerned. This is not simply a science fiction book with a fast plot full of action; the depth surrounding the characters and the past give the novel much more substance, and provide several very raw scenes which are incredibly human.
I have always been a fan of apocalyptic novels which could theoretically be plausible. I think they take advantage of real life fears which most people have, playing on these to draw readers in. The point of this novel is not to focus on the whys of how the world collapsed. We are not given a lengthy scientific account, but it is plausible enough to need no further clarification. Rather than the focus being on the whys of the end of the world, it is much more a focus on humanity itself, and the ways in which people cope or struggle with such a momentous disaster. It is a study, if you will, of people both before and after a massive event. What this book offers is a reflection upon the human condition.
Of course, there is an underlying Shakespearean theme throughout the entirety of this book, the most obvious example being the Traveling Symphony. There is something quite strange, yet also comforting, about the idea that a playwright who has been considered as a man who will last through all the ages, is actually still the man to last past the end of the world. The idea that the past lives on in some shape or form resonates quite well within the novel. As one characters states, ‘People want what was best about the world’ (p. 38), they want something to cling to, whatever that may be. Also, as they frequently remind us, Shakespeare lived through a plague himself, so in many ways faced the end of the world also. This theme of Shakespeare is present throughout a lot of the rest of the novel with clever little bits of intertextuality which the author has cleverly controlled. For example, certain characters or situations often mirror Shakespeare’s plays. Having said that, you really do not need to be familiar with, or to understand Shakespeare, to enjoy this novel. It stands firmly within its own right. If you do manage to pick up on any themes, then I think it does somewhat enhance the reading experience.
This book calls into question many situations which I find fascinating to consider. For example, how do you possibly begin to explain the wonders of the previous world to children who have only ever been born into this new life? How would you explain to them the brilliance of science and the things which mankind had previously achieved. One point which the book brings into consideration, is whether it is easier to attempt to teach them about everything that has been lost, or whether to spare them this knowledge. It is definitely a moral dilemma, and one which I cannot say I would be comfortable deciding. The book also looks at the ways in which such a cataclysmic event can bring out the very worst, or perhaps the very best, qualities within us. One such character which provides a study of this is a man named as the ‘Prophet’. I find cults, especially religious ones, fascinating anyway, so I loved seeing how this man had twisted and taken advantage of the situation for his own ends. Especially when you consider that he may actually believe the things he is professing, and that he has managed to convince others of this also.
In many ways, some of the things which I thought would form the crux of the plot actually became kind of commonplace. That’s not to say that they weren’t still interesting, as they truly were, and in many cases they still were main parts. They just didn’t become the main thing such as in many typical novels which often mark a turning point. I think the great thing about this was that it meant the book never became boring or something which could be easily guessed. It maintained this air of uncertainty which reflected the situation of the characters, as well as stopping the book from being wholly plot driven.
To put it simply, I would whole heartedly recommend this book. It has an interesting premise which sustains the entertainment, as well as having a great literary value. The book is certainly well written, but don’t let that deter you when I say literary. What I mean by literary applies more to the themes and ideas behind the book, the things which take it past the point of a stereotypical apocalyptic story and more into the realms of the whys and how’s of life. I think there is something in this book to appeal to everyone and I really would recommend it.
Have you read this book, or anything else by Mandel? What did you think?