Cover image of "Station Eleven," a novel about life after the apocalypse

This is not the plot for Emily St. John Mandel’s captivating post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven:

Doctor Eleven has fled the destruction of Earth to take up residence on Station Eleven, a space station the size of a small planet that is nearly covered by water. (He has taken his name from that of the station.) There, he struggles against the dark forces of the Undersea, who have murdered his mentor and the station’s former chief, Lonagan.

That was no plot synthesis. It’s the prophetic storyline of a series of graphic novels created over several years by Miranda Carroll, one of the central characters in the intricate web of events St. John Mandel relates in her engrossing novel. Though the comic books appear to be incidental early in the story, they crop up again and again along the way and will prove to be the thread that ties together the fates of the novel’s characters.

Welcome to the apocalypse

Station Eleven is, at heart, the story of an A-list Hollywood film star named Arthur Leander and several of the people whose lives cross with him before the Collapse. Leander, playing the part of King Lear in a stage production in Toronto, suffers a heart attack and collapses on-stage during Act IV. A paramedic-in-training named Jeevan Chaudhary instantly leaps onto the stage from the audience but is unable to save him. The tragedy is witnessed by Kirsten Raymonde, one of three eight-year-old girls who have been playing small, silent roles in the production. Meanwhile, a virulent mutation of influenza, called the Georgian Flu, has been killing off the population of Georgia and Russia and is rapidly fanning out across the world in airplanes filled with refugees from the pandemic. Arthur has died just days before the disease reaches North America.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) 352 pages ★★★★★ 

St. John Mandel’s story unfolds in a rapid succession of short scenes in the post-apocalyptic world along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan 15 and 20 years after the collapse. “Collapse” is the popular term for the apocalypse brought on by the pandemic. There are frequent flashbacks into the lives of the central characters: Arthur Leander; Miranda Carroll, Arthur’s first wife; Elizabeth Colton, his second wife, and their son Tyler; Clark Thompson, Arthur’s British friend from acting classes in Toronto decades earlier; Kirsten, whose life St. John Mandel chronicles in detail throughout the years after the Collapse; and Jeevan Chaudhary. Through the twists and turns of the plot, the lives of these characters frequently intersect. One of them dies of the Georgian Flu. We visit the others both in flashbacks to their pre-pandemic lives and many years after the collapse.

There are no cities left after the apocalypse

In the post-apocalyptic world of this wonderful novel, a National Book Award Finalist, there are no functioning cities. Survivors have scattered over the countryside, some of them coming together in communities of at most a couple of hundred people. The most populous community is one that occupies the airport at a fictional Michigan town, Severn City, near the shore of Lake Michigan. There, someone has set up a Museum of Civilization in the Skymiles Lounge, displaying mobile phones, electronic games, credit cards, and other artifacts of lives long gone.

This is a world fraught with danger. In the years immediately following the collapse, many survivors walk for hundreds of miles in search of food and other resources. Distrust leads many to kill anyone who approaches them. Meanwhile, feral humans rove the earth, preying on travelers unable to defend themselves. Soon, madness takes hold of many, and would-be prophets begin to collect followers, imposing their will through force on anyone they encounter.

The “blood-drenched years” after the apocalypse

“Civilization in Year Twenty is an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn’t go out of their way to welcome strangers.”

In this bleak environment, the Traveling Symphony provides a desperately needed break from the tedium and danger of survival, wandering from town to town in old pickup trucks drawn by horses. The lead truck displays the Symphony’s motto: “Because survival is insufficient.” A merger between a small troupe of actors and the survivors of a symphony orchestra, the “Symphony performed music—classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs—and Shakespeare.” Kirsten, the eight-year-old girl who witnessed Arthur Leander’s death, has joined the Symphony as an actor. “[T]his collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, traveled together, rehearsed together, performed together, 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour.”

“We lost almost everything, but there is still beauty”

St. John Mandel writes, “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot . . . Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair . . .”

As Kirsten observes in an interview in Year 15 with the first newspaper to appear in the region (a hand-printed monthly) , “Some places, you pass through once and never return, because you can tell something’s very wrong. Everyone’s afraid, or it seems like some people have enough to eat and other people are starving, or you see pregnant eleven-year-olds and you know the place is either lawless or in the grip of something, a cult of some kind. There are towns that are perfectly reasonable, logical systems of governance and such, and then you pass through two years later and they’ve slid into disarray.”

But this is not a story without hope. In the final scenes of the novel, electric streetlights are shining brightly in a town distant from the Symphony’s last stop at the Museum of Civilization. A livable world may yet come to life.

Station Eleven is science fiction at its best, a powerful depiction of a dystopian future.

I’ve also reviewed two of the author’s other novels;

For my review of another book about life on Earth after a pandemic, see Severance by Ling Ma—Literary critics loved this novel.

You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19. You might also check out Top 10 great popular novels.

This is also included in 20 good nonfiction books about the future (plus lots of science fiction) and The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction.

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