Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel takes the best parts of the dystopian science fiction and fantasy genre and does one thing most books can’t, give the reader hope. Generally, In speculative fiction, I think we as readers forget that to survive humans must do more than living, humans need to thrive. Humans need to explore and challenge ourselves, to watch sunsets, be moved, and feel joy. Humans need more than to breathe. Good fiction knows this but great fiction, like Station Eleven, explores this.
“Survival is insufficient.”
The story of Station eleven starts with multiple endings.
- A play of King Lear at a Toronto Theater where 51-year-old Arthur Leander has his final moments on stage after suffering a major heart attack. That was his end.
- A man runs on to the stage and attempts to save Arthur. In this moment of heroism, his wandering has ceased. It has ended. He has found his calling.
- A little girl watches the death of Arthur followed by the end of life as she knows it. Her childhood has ended.
- The first cases of superflu affect people. This ends in a worldwide pandemic that decimates that human population, cities, culture, and infrastructure. This is the end of human civilization as we know it.
“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”
Endings are important in fiction, they are the culmination of something. But, an ending is only a moment, a person dying on stage, a man running to save him, a little girl weeping in the wings, and the two weeks that followed. These moments are like stones dropped into a pond. It isn’t so much about the stones as it is about all the ripples sent out from it. The endings are the springboards for beginnings and that in this novel is the important part.
We move forward twenty years and meet Kirsten who was the little girl who witnessed the death of Arthur. She is now a 28-year-old actor and part of the Traveling Symphony. A group of artists dedicated to performing Shakespeare and traveling around from city to city. They sing for their supper, but more than that they give a peek into something that is more than the drudgery of day to day. What in the world is more magnificent and resembles the height of human culture than Shakespeare?
I will not say any more about the plot. First, this is an intricately woven plot and surmising it any further than the blurb does the story injustice. There are too many small pieces. Second, this is a highly atmospheric novel. It is not so much about the words themselves, but the mental image the excellent storytelling it evokes. I couldn’t do it justice in a paragraph about plot highlights even if I wanted to.
Here is where I think this story is brilliant and surpasses many other speculative stories and should be read. It is the celebration of art and humanities. Art is such a human thing and it shines a light on the darkness of an apocalypse. There is so much dark, and drudgery in surviving. Find food and shelter… repeat. That isn’t important. It is the moments of joy and bliss that should be celebrated. Find hope amongst the shadows, find light in the dark. Celebrate that joy and write a story about that. That is what Station Eleven is. It is a light on the darkness. I hope you read it and are as moved as I was.
Buy Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel