Do you ever know that you are going to love a book and then put off reading it? I do this all the time, and I often do it on purpose; I like to have a list of books that I look forward to reading. Up until this week, that list included Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Here is what I knew about Station Eleven going in: A traveling symphony performs Shakespeare plays in a post-apocalyptic world. Which, yeah, that’s true. But it does not even begin to describe the ground covered by this book.
I understand the reluctance to give a more descriptive plot summary. The storytelling method surprised me, and I wouldn’t want to steal that surprise from anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I couldn’t do the plot justice, either—anything I could tell you about it would fall flat. It needs to be discovered the way it was written.
I will tell you how the world ends: There’s a strain of flu that kills 99 percent of the world’s population. Or that’s the estimate. It is impossible to know the actual number because, when approximately 7.5 billion people die, so does global society. The internet is gone; electricity is gone; newspapers are gone; gasoline goes bad after two years; each highway is a gridlock of unmovable cars. People can only communicate with their neighbors. There is no infrastructure, no easy way of contacting someone ten miles away, and intercontinental communication is impossible.
I could not put this book down. Considering that I waited four years to read it, it is ridiculous that once I started, I risked being late for work daily until I finished it. (I was late for work all three days, actually, but does it really count as late when it’s only seven minutes? (That’s a question I won’t ask my manager.))
What made Station Eleven so addicting, aside from the unique structure, is how believable it is. I could see this happening. There is nothing in this book that seemed far fetched. Every few years (or, recently, more frequently), there is talk of a possible pandemic. Plenty of people won’t board a plane without wearing a mask, and they’re not germaphobes. They’re smart.
What frightened me the most about the future as written by St. John Mandel (aside from the mass death) is the absolute isolation. In most cases, these characters don’t know what’s one mile down the road. I like knowing what’s ahead of me when I’m on my 10-mile commute; I am one of those drivers who relies on Waze for alerts about traffic and cops, potholes and parked vehicles. I love being able to open an app to see whether my drive will be five minutes longer than usual. And if what lay ahead could be an ambush rather than a traffic jam? No, thank you.
Another aspect of the isolation is how difficult it is to go anywhere. Not only does the unknown increase with distance, making it dangerous to leave frequently traveled areas, the more distant a destination, the less likely it is that it is possible to reach it. There’s a Parisian character who is on vacation in the United States when the flu hits. Getting from the Midwestern United States to France in the world of Station Eleven is not just difficult, it wouldn’t just take a long time or cost a lot of money. This character can never see Paris again. And no one in the central United States even knows if anyone in Paris has survived. No one knows if anyone in France or Russia or the United Kingdom has survived. Immediately following the flu, a person in Detroit couldn’t know for sure that anyone survived in Ann Arbor. The isolation is complete.
As I’m sure you can tell, Station Eleven made me think. It made me aware of my privilege (recognizing that the mobility I value and would miss is impossible for many today), and it frightened me. Our world is fragile in so many ways. This book highlighted a number of them.
I would recommend this to everyone (except possibly hypochondriacs). The characters are incredible and the storytelling is magnetic. There is one terrifying degree of separation between the world of this book and reality, and entering that world through fiction is one of the best (and most frightening) reading experiences I have had in a long time.