Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
After the fall of civilisation as we know it, an itinerant band of performers travels through an unpredictable and dangerous new world, bringing moments of joy to people’s lives through the unlikely medium of classical music and Shakespeare. It sounds like a rather humorous combination of themes, but Emily St. John Mandel takes this unusual premise and weaves from it a compelling and definitely un-funny book.
It takes a little while to set the scene for the world we are about to explore — I remember being surprised in the early parts of the book, wondering if I was mistaken as to what it was about. But this is not a bad thing at all… we are introduced to key characters and treated to a front-row seat as the world we are familiar with all but disappears in a matter of days. The world is devastated by a flu pandemic the likes of which has never been seen before. As with other end-of-civilisation novels, due to the nature of isolation that results from a dearth of technology, we experience this event through the eyes of our American characters who have no way of telling whether they are all that is left, or whether somewhere out there in the world, other countries made it through with less damage.
The few survivors do what they need to in order to survive. These are wild times. Eventually, things start to settle down and new communities, new lives are formed. For some, simply eking out an existence isn’t enough — they risk their safety travelling between these fledgling communities to share their art and thus preserve a fragile example of beauty and humanity. They are known as “The Travelling Symphony”. Although Station Eleven does a fantastic job at putting us in this after-the-fall world, making it feel entirely plausible (think The Walking Dead minus zombies, plus a bit of Shakespeare), the true strength of the book is that it is about the characters.
Flicking back and forth between the past and the present, we are drawn into the characters’ lives and histories. Each enticing glimpse is another piece of the puzzle, eventually revealing how each character came to be where they are, and how they are all connected.
At its heart, Station Eleven is a story about what makes us human: the relationships we share, our personal frailties, and a desire to create something meaningful and beautiful, something that comes from inside of us. It’s about that artistic drive and how it manifests differently in different people, how they relate to their art and how it affects the way they relate to others.
And that’s what makes the most memorable speculative fiction — an exploration of real people that we can identify with, placed in a world we can only imagine. How would we behave? Would humanity survive with us?