Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
The beginning of the novel is the end of the world. Having won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015 as well as being proclaimed the New York Times bestseller, Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel ‘Station Eleven’ has attracted a great amount of public attention.
Its narration begins with the death of the prominent actor Arthur Leander due to a fatal heart attack he is afflicted with whilst performing Shakespeare’s King Lear in Toronto. This incident marks the beginning of a new post-apocalyptic era for humanity as it coincides with the outbreak of the Georgia Flu, a lethal pandemic causing the death of most of the human population as well as the utter obliteration of the civilized and modern world we are currently living in. This post-collapse world initially appears as rather dystopian and horrifying, as all the conveniences facilitating our daily lives such as electricity, gas, running water and the Internet are no longer accessible or existent. Among the people on the scene the night of Arthur’s death is Kirsten Raymonde, an 8-year-old actress who survives the outbreak of the deadly virus and whose adventurous experiences the author denotes in Year Twenty after the outbreak of the Georgia Flu. Kirsten is part of the Travelling Symphony, a peripatetic band of actors and musicians travelling from settlement to settlement and performing Shakespearian plays. A great variety of characters is introduced in the novel, from a former paparazzo endeavoring to become a paramedic to the so -called ‘Prophet’, being the leader of a fanatic religious cult in the post-pandemic era. Interestingly, all of them end up being somehow intertwined with past, present and future experiences whereas Arthur Leander is the man linking them all. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the narration oscillates between descriptions of the pre-flu world and Year Twenty of the post-pandemic one as well as refers to various experiences from Arthur’s past, hence providing an insight into the perspectives of numerous characters. As the story progresses, the reader gradually discovers the interconnection between the different characters and realizes the significance of specific events from the pre-flu era.
As I am not a keen science fiction reader, I initially wasn’t interested in reading this novel. Moreover, the topic of a global collapse wasn’t quite appealing to me, as it is frequently picked as a central theme in modern literature and dramaturgy. In spite of the fact that the author resorts to a few stereotypical descriptions of celebrity culture and that the story appears to be another habitual narration about the end of the world at first, one is slowly introduced to and immersed in this dystopian and yet simultaneously optimistic post-apocalyptic world.
Apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, the frequent flashbacks interspersed through the novel continuously capture the reader’s attention and make it a very pleasant piece of literature to read. Besides, the mere notion of living in a world without electricity or the Internet raises the reader’s awareness about the countless extraordinary things surrounding us on a daily basis and therefore makes us more appreciative of these privileges taken by so many of us for granted. Finally, an essential message conveyed in the novel is quite accurately described by the quote from Star Trek Voyager: “Survival is insufficient” which is repeated several times throughout the book. It refers to this gesture humans make towards something beyond mere survival- whether it is called art, culture or civilization- which appears to be a natural human instinct and is hence pursued even in a state of utter chaos and deprivation. Station Eleven differs in many respects from the usual post-apocalyptic novels filled with horror and brutality, and although its message- that regardless of the circumstances, civilization will endure as long as there is human life- may be perceived as overly optimistic and naive, I personally find it deeply inspiring and truly touching.
Sofija Petrovic, Year 12