If you think the post-apocalyptic novel is a tired medium, then you haven’t read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The novel is complex, doesn’t focus on the action-packed, survival porn like The Walking Dead, and threads a dreaminess between one character’s science fiction comic-book creation and the travels of The Symphony, a group of performers who trek the wilds of Michigan and Ontario, performing in small settlements like New Petoskey, Traverse City, and New Sarnia.
Humanity’s death knell sounds in the form of a powerful flu which rapidly wipes out 99.9% of the planet’s human population. The novel opens on the eve of this event slamming into Toronto, where some of the main characters are involved in a production of King Lear. Part of the novel focuses on a famous Canadian actor in decline and the cult of celebrity. Why juxtapose a story about humanity’s struggle to continue with celebrity life? In a post-apocalyptic world celebrity would be the most meaningless occupation. Or, in that landscape, celebrity might be a cult figure, someone who is worshipped for no good reason. We see this duality in the novel as a cult leader takes over the town St. Deborah by the Water. If there is no good use for a celebrity after the collapse, is there a good use for one before things fall apart? As Arthur Leander’s story unfolds it’s a question to consider.
Arthur is the reference point for the other character’s stories. His demise takes up the mental space for the character’s remaining hours or days of normal life. Some of the characters meet again after the fallout, while others have their own terminal stories that offer a piece in a mosaic. The heart of the novel is The Symphony, a core made up of a military band and a troupe of actors who perform Shakespeare. The lead wagon, formerly a pickup truck, in The Symphony has the phrase “survival is insufficient,” wonderfully taken from Star Trek: Voyager and painted on the side. And that is one quality that separates Station Eleven from so many other post-apocalyptic narratives. There needs to be community. There needs to be music and art. People have been surviving after the collapse, and now, it’s time for some culture.
Even if you do not normally read science-fiction or post-apocalyptic fiction, Station Eleven is a great read. The characters are rich. The writing is sharp. And the story is one you don’t want to end.