'Station Eleven' Review: Survival is Insufficient

I've read quite a few post-apocalyptic novels recently, and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven definitely stands out, exploring the genre in a unique way that made it hard to put down. The novel follows three main characters—Arthur Leander, Jeevan Chaudhary, and Kirsten Raymonde—both before, during and after the collapse of the world. 

Station Eleven begins with the death of Arthur, who at 51 has a heart attack onstage while performing as the title character of King Lear. Jeevan, a former paparazzo who's been studying to be a paramedic, jumps onstage to try to revive Arthur as an 8-year-old Kirsten watches from the wings. When Jeevan fails to save Arthur, he leaves the theater and walks the streets of Toronto until he receives a call from an old friend of his. The Georgia Flu, an extreme strain of swine flu which has been ravaging Georgia and Russia, has spread from Europe and is infecting people worldwide. A pandemic is imminent, and Jeevan needs to prepare. He stocks up on 8 shopping carts' worth of groceries, barricades himself and his brother in his brother's apartment, and waits.

The next time we see Kirsten, 20 years have passed. She is now an actress with a troupe called the Traveling Symphony, who moves throughout Canada performing Shakespeare and classical music for the towns and settlements that have cropped up in the two decades since the Georgia Flu ravaged the world. The Symphony is composed of twenty or so actors and musicians traveling in a caravan led by horses and made of truck beds and tents, the side of each of which is painted with the words "Survival is insufficient," a line from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Kirsten has spent half her life with the Symphony, and while she doesn't remember much from before the collapse, she does remember Arthur Leander, the actor she watched die, and she spends her spare time raiding old houses for gossip magazines or other information about the mysterious actor. She carries the magazines in her backpack, along with two issues of a comic book called Dr. Eleven, which is about a man who escaped an alien invasion of Earth but cannot keep peace between the two factions who live on the space station they took refuge in.

Through flashbacks we learn about both Arthur and his first wife, Miranda, who created the Dr. Eleven comics. Kirsten's post-apocalyptic world is juxtaposed beside Arthur's pre-apocalyptic one as we come to know both characters and their motivations. The novel also spends a few chapters with Jeevan during the initial point of the collapse, so readers get a unique view of how the world changed and how these characters affect one another.

Kirsten and the Symphony have spent the last few years in relative calm, only having to deal with the occasional "ferals" or gangs on the road. By Year 20 after the collapse, the world has become comfortable with the state it's in and is less dangerous as towns and quasi-governments were built. When the Symphony visits St. Deborah by the Water, however, they draw the attention of The Prophet and have to run from a danger the likes of which they haven't faced in many years.

As Station Eleven progresses, its main characters intertwine in ways you wouldn't expect, all of their stories colliding by the end of the book. St. John Mandel crafts a story that is less about what it's like to survive in a post-apocalyptic world and more about what it means to be human and how relationships can make or break a person. Threaded with subtle nostalgia for times passed, Station Eleven conjures an image of the emotions and decisions people deal with on a regular basis, whether that be the decision to divorce your wife or the decision to kill a man who means you harm, and it will stay with you long after you put it down.

4/5