This is a work of dystopian fiction set in post-pandemic America. It’s the Zombie apocalypse sans Zombies, but with something additional: arts and entertainment. The fact that, not only is there an arts and entertainment industry but that it’s central to the story, is critical to Mandel’s ability to set her story apart amid the sea of post-apocalyptic wasteland stories that have been gracing the shelves of bookstores in recent years. Other branches of dystopian fiction have entertainers (e.g. “Hunger Games”) – often in a morbid form of gladiatorial combat – but one of the ways that post-apocalyptic wasteland stories show how dismal and colorless life has become is to eliminate all mentions of art or entertainment – presuming that in survival mode people “put away childish things.” Mandel, on the other hand, places members of a traveling symphony that roams about performing music and Shakespearean plays among her core characters.
The title, Station Eleven, is the name of a sci-fi comic book. I won’t get into specifics as it’s involved in the resolution of the story in a way that I don’t want to spoil. However, I will say that emphasizing what seems like a minor element of the story (through most of the book, anyway) is interesting in that it’s another way in which the author shines a light on how art – highbrow or low – will inevitably shape human culture, behavior, and mythology.
Mandel also shows how, even in a world in which the majority of the species have been killed off, there will always be connections in the web of human interaction. Through out the book flashbacks to pre-apocalyptic happenings are offered, mostly around an actor who – if not patient zero – was one of the early casualties of the pandemic. The actor was married multiple times and sired one child that is known about, and these characters – as well as friends and acquaintances — are seen in pre- and / or post-apocalyptic settings. And this allows the reader to imagine a web of humanity surviving massive fatalities. Often in this sub-genre, at most a dyad (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”) survives, and that existence amid strangers is part of how the wasteland is shown.
This is a highly readable book, and well worth the read. Even if one is prone to think, “Ugh, another post-apocalyptic wasteland novel,” one will find something a bit different in its supposition that art is necessary and inevitable for humanity and that there aren’t enough degrees of separation to kill off all connections without killing off the species.