Usually when a book is set in a post-apocalyptic world, it’s telling one of two stories. Either it’s the story of the fall – how did society get into this fucking mess? – or it’s the story of the gritty challenge to survive just after the fall. Few stories contemplate what might happen a decade or two later, once basic survival is figured out. What then?
That’s the brilliant conceit of Station Eleven.
Sometime in the near future a global pandemic called the Georgia Flu (named after the country, not the state) roars across the planet killing off 99 percent of humanity. Using a time skipping narrative worth of an early (aka “good”) Atom Egoyan flick, Station Eleven tells the interlocked stories of several survivors trying to make sense of an empty world about twenty years in the future.
Note the word “survivors.” These aren’t just people lucky enough to be immune or otherwise avoid the flu. These characters have made it a couple of decades in this new world and have become competent at getting by. If they hadn’t, they’d be dead. Instead, they’re able to devote themselves to larger questions. How important is art and culture in a post-apocalyptic world? Pretty damned important is the answer, one I’m not compelled to argue with. It would have been nice if “art” meant something beyond Shakespeare and classical music, but it is a limited sample, after all. If there’s a Travelling Symphony out there in a wastelands doing King Lear and playing Mozart, I’d like to think there’s a band knocking around playing King Crimson and Zappa, too.
The other big question that rears its head over and over again is how much these people should remember the world as it was and try to pass along information about that world. Two decades on there are adults, either born shortly after the flu or who were young children when it happened, who know nothing of electricity and the Internet and flying aircraft. Is telling them about what they’re missing inspirational, something to make them rebuild? Or is it calcifying nostalgia, dragging them down? Theories are floated and arguments are made, but nothing’s decided. How could it be?
The time-skipping structure works really effectively. The goal isn’t to reveal some big secret, to build to a Shamalan-style “a ha!” moment. Instead it’s a way of drawing connections between characters, even as they become spread around the modern world. It leads to some disjointed spots – there’s one character in particular, front and center in the beginning just before the flu hits, whose story doesn’t really seem a part of the rest – but otherwise it’s a treat.
Where the book falls down a bit is in the overall arc of the story. As I said, there are no big moments and the closest thing to a bad guy is dispatched cleverly, but without it feeling like it’s the moment it should be. That and one section set among survivors at an airport (later turned into a “museum of civilization”) that drags on too long keeps Station Eleven from being knock out of the park great.
This isn’t a gritty survival story. It’s not a whodunit about why the world came to an end. It’s a lyrical, atmospheric, meditation on what it means to be alive in a world where so many others aren’t. Big thoughts, ones worth pondering for a bit.
Also, it led to perhaps the greatest Goodreads Q&A I’ve ever seen:
Needless to say, that’s not at all what this book is about. Good thing, too.