Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, is a work of speculative fiction centering around a virulent version of the flu wiping out a large chunk of humanity in a time much like our own. The story moves through time, featuring several different characters and their lives prior to, during, and after the catastrophe. Sometimes this sort of time travel and story weaving can be a bit confusing or boring, but it was done well in this book. The characters were interesting and the story wasn’t completely run of the mill, which was a good sign. One of the weirdest things was that this book followed a similar set of circumstances to a book idea I’ve been kicking around in my head for a few years. Overall, I would call this a READ, because I enjoyed it and felt like it gave a good picture of the speculative fiction world it sought to portray.
Here, There Be Spoilers
Station Eleven begins with a performance of Shakespeare and an actor dying on stage (not of the flu). That actor’s death and life connect several players in the tale of Station Eleven, as a plague-level flu sweeps across the world and wipes out large chunks of population. You’re given the perspectives of being in a big city during the flu outbreak as well as the experience of twenty years later, as part of a traveling orchestra and acting caravan. The focus of this novel is mostly on the people and how they cope with different situations, rather than an action-based take on the disease spreading.
The whole Kevin Bacon-esque six degrees of separation feel of some books isn’t present in this one. In a way, the book shows how you can touch the lives of others without even meaning to and reminds us that you can have an effect no matter how brief the interaction.
As a fan of Shakespeare and orchestral music, I quite enjoyed the thought of a band of players roaming the country 20 years after the flu epidemic and bringing some of the old world to the new. “Survival is insufficient,” as the caravan’s lead wagon reads. The true mark of modern man is in the will to do more than merely survive.
The novel seems to follow the notion that a complete culture reset might not be a bad thing, as the lives portrayed before the plague are often a bit depressing, with an overall tone of jaded disenchantment. Relationships and lives are mostly ho-hum, with most people feeling as though they’re just going through the motions. The portrayal of life after the plague seems a bit more real, but when you think about it, there are a ton of realities to face that aren’t there in the time before. In short, it’s a bit of a “grass is always greener” situation.
The flu gives a lot of people in the book a chance to change their lives (even if it is forced) and there is a sense of hope there, that even after a disaster the human spirit will go on and survive. This is a bit of a silly, optimistic thought when I write it in this review, but it doesn’t feel nearly that corny when you read the book.
To me, the main point of the book is that art inspires and enriches everything we do, regardless of what our living situation may be and how we interpret art. This resonated with me. From a dismal world and survival comes the chance to show creativity, even a little, and to appreciate the creativity of others. And that, I think, is what makes a society blossom. Even if it’s a simple stone carved into a simple shape, it’s an expression of thought and creativity, and someone else can see and critique and enjoy that thought and creativity. And it lives.