Imagine that a deadly flu took out most of the world’s population and now, as a result, people are forced to live without electricity, gas, or internet, and learn live off the land to survive. This is the premise of Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel.
Station Eleven reminded me a lot initially of the (now sadly canceled) tv show Revolution. It’s a post-apocalyptic survival story, and the characters are traveling across the North American landscape with no electricity and no “United States”. In the novel’s case, however, the destroyed world is more of a background setting for an exploration of how humans have become disconnected from the natural world and how some interactions, moments, or choices can have an inexplicable lasting impact on someone.
The most interesting feature of the novel is how the story is told. Mandel jumps around constantly from moment to moment, and setting to setting. It feels almost carefree on her part, but you know it can’t be because it’s done in such a way that it’s not causing the reader to have to do any additional work, and everything makes sense. I don’t know how Mandel kept straight in her head what information she had and had not given away as she was writing, but she’s done a great job. You’re constantly waiting until the end to find out what happened in the future to the characters you’ve connected with in the pre-flu world and you’re wanting to know more about the origins of the people you’ve connected with in the post-flu world. It’s not a mystery novel, but as you read it feels like you’re following lots of mini-mysteries which are all these characters’ life stories and how their interactions, chance or otherwise, have profound effects on their lives.
Mandel really makes you think about how the world is structured today. We constantly hear about how much knowledge we have available to us in the information age, but we don’t often consider that just because it’s available to us, doesn’t mean we have it. All the tasks necessary to run our society are divided into separate careers. A banker probably doesn’t know how to hunt, a hunter probably doesn’t know how to generate electricity, an electrical engineer probably doesn’t know how to run a successful government, and a politician, whatever he or she may say, probably doesn’t know how to set up an efficient economy. We know we have all of this information available at our fingertips with the internet. But, if we lost that magnificent tool, the knowledge in today’s world is so subsetted that we’d probably be lost for a long time too.
Ironically, as I was reading Station Eleven, I kept coming across an ad on TV by America’s Natural Gas Alliance. It starts, “Someone once told me that working for the power company is a noble calling. I believe that it is. People don’t have to think about where their electricity comes from. They flipped a switch, and the light comes on. It’s our job to make sure that it does.” Obviously this type of system has helped our world develop much more quickly than if everyone tried to be knowledgeable about everything – there’s only so much information a human brain can hold. Nevertheless, reading this book made me think that it probably couldn’t hurt to learn a little more about how I get things like running water, electricity, food, and clothing!
All in all, I’d give this book 8/10 stars. It’s narrative is a little choppy (unexpectedly picks up and slows down through the book) but the style is unique and does work. The characters aren’t ones that will stick with you forever but their stories are engaging and will probably make you think about the interactions you have in your own life. Finally, if you, like me, are interested in the post-apocalyptic genre but can’t stand to read another book revolving around a sordid teen romance, then you should definitely check this book out!
Have you read Station Eleven or any other books by Mandel? What is your favorite post-apocalyptic or dystopian book? What do you think of the genre? Let me know in the comments below!