Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Dystopia or Utopia? An ode to the human spirit

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

 

Station Eleven is one of the best novels I’ve read in 2014. And I’ve read quite a few. I guess if I had to define it, I could call it a post-apocalyptic novel, although the action moves forward and back between events that happened mostly shortly before the flu epidemic that killed 99% of the World’s population (sometimes some years before) and years after. All the characters are somewhat connected to the opening scene, although in some cases we don’t know exactly how until much later in the story.

Superficially the novel seems to be a crazy quilt, with jumps in time and place, following the wandering memories of the main characters, and in some cases, like in Kirsten’s, the actress with a travelling troupe, their physical wanderings. But towards the end you do realise that the fragments make a beautiful pattern, like a multifaceted jewel, that shines brighter because of its many aspects.

What would happen if suddenly most of the population of the world died? What would happen to the structures of society and to the things we take for granted? There are a large number of works that look at possible scenarios of the end of the world. Movies, novels, TV series… Many of them focus on the actual event and sometimes the desperate, or not so desperate, attempts at saving humanity from its destiny. Fewer look at the aftermath of such an event, but in many cases the scenario is a horror story and a survival of the fittest tale, with not always much attention paid to the feelings and thoughts of the people who find themselves in such situation. In this novel, the opposite is true. We do have tales of survival; we have stories of strange cults and different attitudes and strategies to cope with the destruction of modern civilisation; we have horror, and we have wonder. And memories. Things people want to forget, things they try desperately to remember, others they try to recreate...One can’t help but think, if everything around you disappeared, if all the things you thought made life what it is weren’t there anymore, what would you really miss? What would you really remember? And how would you carry on?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, another great book, covers a somewhat similar ground, but it is much more soul-wrenching and the lack of identity and isolation of the characters makes it more difficult to identify with them. Emily St. John Mandel questions not only individual characters but also the societies they might create, giving it a more human and humane dimension.

This is a beautiful novel, written in an evocative and deceptively simple language, that transports us to a world at the same time familiar but also different to the one we know, and strangely easy to imagine. What would humanity do if they were given the chance to start again from zero (or very close)? One hopes they would never give up, and they would do it better this time. Perhaps.

Station Eleven will touch you, will make you think, and will make you grateful you’re alive. Read it if at all you can.

It brought to mind a book from my childhood that was required reading and very well loved, El mecanoscript del segón orígen de Manuel de Pedrolo that although is a much simpler book (focuses only on two young survivors), it also explores a similar world.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/594399.Mecanoscrit_del_segon_origen

This book is a New York Times bestseller and was book of the month in September in Amazon and a 2014 National Books Award Finalist.