The Book: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Challenge: A book on The New York Times bestseller list
Back in January, I was scanning the New York Times bestseller list for a potential book when I caught the phrase “Post-apocalyptic Shakespeare Company.” No more words were needed, I got Station Eleven.
Basically, the book follows the lives of three groups of people:
All of the stories of these three groups wind up being interwoven and serve as parallels and foils for each other, serving as an exploration of the themes of regret, life, death (death of the soul vs. death of the body), madness, family, friendship, survival, humanity, art, and beauty. It is (rather fittingly in a novel that takes Shakespeare as one of its major influences) ultimately left to the reader to decide which side they are on in the discussion. Mandel treats all of her characters with compassion, making them believable people who are flawed, but not really judged. Even the main antagonist of the story becomes a tragic figure in his own right once you find out who he is.
As for the "post-apocalyptic Shakespeare Company" that made me pick up the book, Mandel does a fantastic job. I do typically enjoy a good post-apocalyptic story, but they are admittedly becoming increasingly common. Station Eleven, however,manages to play with that type of setting in a really refreshing way. If you are looking for a Mad Max or Fallout style setting, with people fighting for survival against a harsh world full of raiders and zombies, look somewhere else (in fact, the only “zombies” in the book appear in the pre-collapse chapters, but spoilers there). In Station Eleven, the world post-Georgia Flu is fairly peaceful. There are references to the first few years after the collapse being horrifically violent, but no one wants to remember them, and though there are the occasional fights and the Symphony travels well armed, they are still primarily actors and musicians who perform “what was best about the world.” They have the motto “Survival is insufficient” (taken from a Star Trek: Voyager episode), and despite the actual meaning of that motto being under heavy debate between Symphony members, it is an important distinction from the typical “survival is all that matters” stories one usually finds. Life is difficult, the book points out, “but there is still such beauty.”
Essentially, the post-Flu world of Station Eleven is not one where people lose their humanity with the loss of the modern world, but one where life goes on despite the loss of the convenience of modern technology. It is a setback, but ultimately one that people can deal with (there is even a nice parallel drawn between the plague-hit world that Shakespeare lived through and the Flu-struck world that the Symphony exists in).
In case you’ve managed to make it this far into my slightly rambling impression of the book, I whole-heartedly recommend going out and finding a copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Come for the post-apocalyptic Shakespeare, stay for everything else.