Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

(9.5/10) I could hardly put it down. This is a story that engages you with ideas on existentialism.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the southern provinces of Canada where an aggressive mutation of swine-flu has wiped out an estimated 99% of the world’s population in the space of a couple of weeks. This is not so much a story with a beginning, middle and end, but a story about what happens to the survivors after an apocalypse, what survival actually means, and what this type of event does to a person’s humanity.

The story tentatively follows a travelling troupe of Shakespearian performers known as the Travelling Symphony, who travel from community to community in an attempt to improve lives and raise spirits through song, dance and performing arts. I say tentatively because the story also follows the life of a man named Arthur Leander, the life he lead prior to the flu apocalypse, and the reach his life continues to have beyond the apocalypse. It is hard to identify an apparent plot in this story – Station Eleven meanders, philosophises, and follows random threads down rabbit holes just to see where they go. It’s very Gaiman-esque in that respect.

There is a very large cast of characters in Station Eleven, and I like the way that Mandel has built and introduced them in a non-traditional / untypical way. There is nothing particularly special about any of the characters, they could be you, or me, or anyone you know. They aren’t driven by a primary plot point in the story. They aren’t trying to save the day. They are driven by a need to live a fulfilling life despite having lost everything. They live, they love, they have hobbies, they support each other, they die, and the world moves on having been enriched by their existence. These characters are ordinary people who have had the standard definition of humanity stripped away from them, and now have to decide for themselves what being human means in this new world.

In some respects I’m not quite sure why I enjoyed this book so much. It is quite literary, there isn’t much action, and there isn’t an identifiable plot to pull you though. And yet, I could hardly put it down. This is a story that engages you with ideas on existentialism. This is a story that takes a line from Star Trek: Voyager – “survival is insufficient” – and lets it germinate into something special that rings true throughout the story. I think it’s the exploration of this theme from many different facets that I found fascinating, that kept me moving through this book late into the night.

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