Within weeks, televised news ends and the Internet goes down. The mortality rate, exceeding 99.99%, means that any survivors are utterly alone in a ghost world of corpses, abandoned cars and quietly decaying buildings.
But some humans do survive.
Twenty years after the collapse of civilization, a troupe of actors and musicians—the Travelling Symphony—make their way across the outposts and new towns of the new world, performing Shakespearean plays. After two decades, the world is a safer place than it was immediately following the collapse, although danger, in the forms of cults, greed and power-hunger, still exist. The Symphony has its share of trouble, especially when they come across a formerly stable town that has fallen to a man who calls himself The Prophet.
It is in these worlds—both the past memories of Earth and the future post-apocalyptic landscape—that Station Eleven weaves its tale.
It is the story of a paparazzo-turned-journalist-turned–(almost) paramedic named Jeevan, who discovers his true calling just before the world ends. It is the story of Arthur Leander’s rise and fall, a young man with humble origins to a world famous actor. It is the story of Miranda, an introspective woman who married Arthur but then became a self-made executive, though her passion is drawing and writing her own comic book, “Station Eleven.” It is the story, so many years later, of Kirsten, a child actor before the fall who becomes one of the finest Shakespearean actors in the post–Georgia Flu world, a young woman who can vaguely remember the magic of technology and whose most prized possession is a battered set of comic books given to her by Arthur Leander before his death.
It is the story of lives before and after the collapse of life as we know it, of fate and chance and the artifacts that tie us together.
Named one of the best books of the year by several media outlets, and a finalist for the National Book Award, Station Eleven was the last book I read in 2014. And I can safely say after reading it that the praise is much deserved; Emily St. John Mandel’s debut novel is a wondrous yarn about a group of interconnected lives before, during and after the fall of civilization.
It’s a fragile thing, memory. One of the most beautiful and haunting things about Station Eleven is the balance and divide between memory and reality. The Kirsten of the post–Georgia Flu world can vaguely remember things like refrigerators and air conditioners and television screens, but cannot honestly distinguish between her memory of such things or what her imagination is conjuring, especially after hearing so many stories from the older survivors of the pre-fall world. Similarly, memory and reality vie for dominance in the story of Arthur Leander’s failed marriages, his love for his wives, his child, his dearest and oldest friend Clark, for himself. Whether it’s examining the aftermath of a global pandemic or the afterglow of a broken relationship, there is always a gulf between memory and reality; Station Eleven is the elegiac tale of that divide.
More powerful than memory, though, is the driving theme of interconnectedness and fate throughout Station Eleven—the Cloud Atlas/LOST (the tv show) style theme of inevitability between all of the characters in the text. There’s a paperweight that one character steals from another that inexplicably survives the apocalypse; there’s the never-published eponymous comic books that become one girl’s most prized artifacts from the world before the catastrophic pandemic. Everyone and everything in Station Eleven is connected—and while this inevitability is perhaps a bit too conveniently pat, discovering the ways that each artifact and character have interacted before and will interact again are wondrous. Even magical, really.
And, speaking of magic, it is Emily St. John Mandel’s narrative, mores o than the novel’s characterizations, that propels Station Eleven across timelines and distance. In restrained, thoughtful prose—one has the sense that every single word has been carefully considered, erased, and rewritten, much like Miranda’s methodical lettering of her comics—Station Eleven weaves its magic on its audience. Because, ultimately, even though civilization has ended, there is still hope in the new world. Station Eleven is an ode to that truth and beauty, to a different kind of future in which the past is remembered, but not recreated.
And I, for one, cannot think of a better way to bid 2014 adieu and herald in the new year.
In Book Smugglerish, 8 well-worn post-apocalyptic comic books out of 10.
Above photo is an insert of the Station Eleven comic book produced in the U.K.’s Picador edition of Station Eleven.