Review: Station Eleven By Emily St. John Mandel
‘What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there was still such beauty.’
When I saw Emily St. John Mandel speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival I was immediately intrigued by her discussion of Station Eleven. Not because it’s another post-apocalyptic story (and who doesn’t love one of those?), but because Mandel seems to believe, as I do, that no matter where and when a people are living, they will ascribe meaning to the things they create.
At its heart, Station Eleven asks a simple question: if the world were to end, what would you preserve? What means the most to you? The novel describes a world in which airplanes blossom rust twenty years after a virulent swine flu has wiped out 99.9% of the world’s population. Where the remains of humanity make communities in roadside motels and abandoned airports. It’s a study of contemporary technology – iPhones, laptops, petrol-fuelled transport – in their absence.
Unlike most apocalyptic stories, death and depravity are not centre-stage. This isn’t The Walking Dead, where the margin between the living and the undead becomes increasingly difficult to judge the more humanity is stripped away for the sake of survival. The terrible days are in the past already, suggested through memories repressed and things only mentioned in passing. And there certainly are still those in the world who seek to exploit others. But Station Eleven has a more wistful focus.
These two lives are bound together in unexpected ways across time. Bound by beautiful objects: a beautiful glass paperweight, a limited-print comic book entitled Station Eleven. Small, beautiful things are at the heart of this novel precisely because, while so much has been lost, they’ve been given new meanings.
The book does fall back on tropes of the genre. The tense moments stockpiling supplies before the collapse, the creepy prophet who leads dangerous zealots in the new world. But what is unusual for a post-apocalyptic novel is it’s hopeful tone. And it’s worth a read, if just to see how well Mandel strikes that balance.
This review was first published at Fantastica on 26 June 2015. Image by Nathan Burton.