There’s poetry at the end of the world.
There’s proper high culture at the end of the world.
STATION ELEVEN is a beautifully written poem of the post-apocalypse. Its subject matter is grim, there’s no hiding this, but this is a book determined to still focus on the finer things in life. This is a novel which is trying to foster hope. At the centre is a travelling band of actors and musicians who tour the untamed landscape paying their way with plays by Shakespeare and classical symphonies. As in these dangerous and ruined times, just surviving is not enough. There has to be more.
Now we’ve all read or seen end of the world stories. We know how they work. There are feral gangs; there are marauders and rapists; there are new and dangerous religious cults. This novel understands that. The characters of this novel understand that (they’ve read those books and seen those films too). So what the (elegantly, gorgeously named) Emily St. John Mandel does is give us some of what we expect, but also so much more.
Right before the world as we know it was ended by a devastating and malignant disease, a famous actor on the slide died suddenly of a heart attack. An inconsequential fact, one might have thought, given all that was to follow. But a number of people on this new world have cause to remember his man, to hang onto those memories: the girl who played his daughter in his last stage role; his best friend; the man who tried to save his life; even his son. All of them, to a greater or lesser extent, hang onto their recollections of him – while the two youngest literally hang onto the obscure sci-fi comic book written by his ex-wife, the fantastical STATION ELEVEN.
This isn’t just a post-apocalyptic drama then, this is a meditation on loss, on how our actions affect other people, of how even a chance encounter can live in the heart of someone for decades after, of how people live on after their death. It’s a book about what we’ve lost, but also what we retain – what we remember. It’s about how Shakespeare touches the next generations, but how in our own ways, we all do. Without a doubt it’s a sad novel, but it’s also a hopeful one. There is survival, but there is more than survival – and the best of people endures even in the most trying times.
Fancy reading some of my own short fiction (some sci-fi elements are included), then you can read a collection for free here!