Summer is winding down, my reading itinerary has been derailed, but I’m making a comeback. Today I have for you Emily St. John Mandel’s science fiction novel Station Eleven, which will shock readers with it’s depiction of the overlooked fragility of the modern world and the capabilities of humans pushed to their limits. This book will unravel your impression of 21st century life.
About the book: The Georgia Flu has wiped out over 90 percent of the population. No one can be sure exactly how many are left, because travel and communication are basically non-existent except by foot, and face-to-face dialogue. Kirsten makes a two-year circuit of makeshift towns with the Traveling Symphony, a small group of caravans that passes through settlements to perform Shakespeare plays and orchestral concerts, a means of making their lives about more than survival. “Survival is insufficient,” is the motto of the Traveling Symphony. The symphony members also encounter a self-proclaimed prophet, the curator of the Museum of Civilization, and mysterious trouble on the road as they search for two missing members outside of their usual territory and rebuild their lives. Everyone has been devastated by the flu. Everyone has changed to fit the new world forced upon them. Everyone has lost someone they loved.
“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”
The main reason this book read so slowly for me was the fact that it didn’t have much of a main plot arc. There are several story lines that the narration examines, and we see many of them out of their chronological order with occasional areas of overlap. I truly love this technique. I admire stories that are so all-encompassing that they don’t need to be told linearly, and multiple perspectives is a great way–especially in sci-fi or fantasy works–to show the details of the world that the author has constructed. These aspects of the layout drew me in to this book, but it also made it a bit slower to read, without the usual increase of tension that most novels rely on to keep the reader hooked. There is one plot arc farthest into the future is broken into chronological pieces, each one leaving the reader uncertain about whether the end of the section is just a pause in a continuing narration, or one of the many unfortunate ends this book discloses. Many of the threads of this story do feel oddly unfinished–marriages, careers, relationships, journeys, lives–but it’s very fitting with the subject matter of the book. With limited communication abilities and the lack of regularized law, it’s entirely possible to lose sight of someone for one moment and simply never see them again. The world has been fragmented–and so have the plot lines.
There may not be one central arc of tension, but each of the characters presented in Station Eleven has his or her own ups and downs, mysteries to be solved, problems to resolve, etc. that keep the story flowing. They are all subtly tied together in a way that keeps the chapters connected even between character and decade switches. The characters of this story don’t need to be relatable because they are the windows to the world. Whether they are likeable or not, they share with the reader the way that lives unfold in this time:
“They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.”
Best part: Although the tension in the book didn’t keep me as invested in turning pages as I’d hoped, the hauntingly beautiful prose and implications presented in the text were more than enough to make me want to finish reading. The world in which this story takes place post-flu is completely alien, and yet so eerily plausible. The ghosts of our current way of life are everywhere in these pages, and it leaves the reader with the terrifying impression that life in the 21st century is flimsier than we ever thought. Station Eleven makes a post-electricity, post-Internet Earth not only clearly imaginable, but perhaps closer than any of us would like to contemplate. Is it the apocalypse? Divine intervention? Sheer bad luck? The characters–ordinary people, one and all–can speculate, and some are certain one way or the other, but none of those possibilities hits the point: what happens to those who go on living at the end of the world? Is survival enough? St. John Mandel makes it obvious that even in survival there is beauty:
“He was just another dead man on another road, answerless, the bearer of another unfathomable story about walking out of one world and into another.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book didn’t send me through all the emotions, like most books I love, but it made me reconsider my reality in a way that I believe fiction should. One of the reasons I most like to read fiction is to gain a better understanding of the real world. Everyone lies, but in fiction at least the story is presented as a lie, and it’s up to the reader to fish out the truths therein. Because they are there, in every far-fetched tall tale adventure; little pieces of the author and his/her impressions of the world are stuck to the pages. Station Eleven wasn’t at all what I expected, but it will certainly stick with me.
- Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the first book in a YA series about the end of the modern way of life in consequence of a large-scale natural disaster. Like Station Eleven, Pfeffer’s books focus on the unmatchable pain and glory of survival in a collapsed world where new life begins.
- You may also like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, my favorite modern classic dystopian novel. This one takes place after a new world has been established on top of an old one, but the greatest changes are the new moral codes the humans have adopted, which prove nearly impossible to overcome. You can read more about this book here.
Coming up Next: New fiction author Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls. Set in the 1960’s, this book is about a girl who finds herself almost accidentally involved in a cult that could destroy her.
Don’t take anything for granted–read now.
The Literary Elephant