A disaster (in this case, a flu pandemic) wiped out ore than 99% of the world population. Civilization collapsed. A group of heroes and heroines tried to survive in a vast waste land. The setup may sound too familiar even cliched these days. But Station Eleven manages to be different, and much better.
The biggest issue with many post-apocalyptic books is that despite a experimental scenario where many dramatic themes unfold, the authors are either not clear about what kind of message they want to convey or the message get severely distracted by the dramatic setup of the story. Fine, humanity blew up and this and that, but how do they become thought-provoking and enjoyable in addition to shocking? In other words, it is not the “BE IT” but the “SO WHAT” that makes a good post-apocalyptic story.
And that is exactly what Mandel did so well in Station Eleven. There are many such pairs of element/theme.
- Travelling Shakespearean – People needs not only bread but also art to survive
- Dr. Eleven Comics – Not only high art but also pop art
- Arthur’s life – A symbol of our current civilization where sadness and alienation as inevitable consequences of vanity and success
- The main characters relationship to Author – The universal constructiveness of humanity
- The prophet – Why do people embrace religion
However, integrating big thoughts into a story is a delicate matter. Too lightly, they become contrived. Too heavily they become desperate. Station Eleven achieved a rare balance between the two through its understated but beautiful language, where narrative and emotions are well controlled.
Station Eleven is not as bleak as The Road, hence doesn’t carry the same kind of weight. On the contrary, it is a very optimistic book despite the bleakness of a post-apocalyptic world. “Survival is not enough”. Essentially, it is just as the tagline of the Travelling Shakespearean quoted from StarTrek.
Some books are so delicious that one just wants to devour it over night. But not this one. Station Eleven should be read slowly, and savored for a long time after the final page is turned over.