I can see why this book shows up on so many best-of-2014 book lists. What I liked most about it is that it’s a post-apocalypse story about people that seem very real. I love The Stand, but I’m always more interested in the regrouping that happens than the whole good versus evil battle. Station Eleven is about the aftermath of a pandemic. It’s the story of what would probably happen, and how it would probably happen, if most of us died quickly from a pandemic and only a few were left behind.
The novel describes a traveling troupe of artists who live with the motto “survival is insufficient” (taken from a Star Trek episode). In trying to survive, the characters find they need art, and love, and beauty. And there is hope. The world hasn’t torn itself apart completely. People are rebuilding, living in a much simpler way. And yet there is still fear and lawlessness to contend with.
This isn’t your typical post-apocalyptic story, in that it really focuses on the lives of a few characters, and how those characters are woven into the lives of other characters. It goes back and forth between the pre-disease years and the current day (about a twenty year span) but doesn’t try to explain everything that happened in between.
Art comes in a number of forms in this book, from theater and music to the graphic novel Kirsten has carried around with her since childhood. Art is timeless, and whether it belongs to the future or the past, it inspires.
I loved the attention to detail. St. Mandel describes how the electricity gradually goes off. Without fuel the planes stop flying and the farms stop producing. Computers and internet quickly become a thing of the past. She describes the crime and violence that would result from the total collapse of governance. People have to find each other and more importantly, find safety in a scary, uncivilized world.
That’s the practical side of this story, but there’s much more to it than that. I loved how this book wove together different story lines in a way that felt believable rather than merely coincidental. It’s not as if everyone left on the planet knows each other – this is simply the story of a few people and how they are connected.
Throughout, St. Mendel keeps reminding us how lucky we are to have all that we have –technology, electricity, fresh food, and of course our lives. Those who survive yearn for the days before the flu, but they keep pushing on and making new lives for themselves. Those who are older struggle more with all the changes; those who were children adapt quickly but have vague memories of what used to be. One of the questions raised in this book is how much should be preserved and remembered – what should be taught to the children about a world that doesn’t exist anymore?
This is a book where you will really care about the characters. Even though not all of them survive, you see how their actions, even small ones, have a lasting impact in the future.
This book may not appeal to those looking for a typical dystopian read, or a lot of action. Still, there’s plenty of suspense. St. Mandel’s writing is so good, I was drawn into the lives of these characters and the book never let go.