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Station Eleven provides unique look at end of the world

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven puts a new spin on dystopian literature.
Photo: Genessa Gutzait · The Sentry

Physical survival is truly inefficient

Station Eleven chronicles the beginning of an end. This novel by Emily St. John Mandel tells the story of an outbreak of a strain of the swine flu, dubbed the “Georgia Flu”, that infects a full plane traveling from Russia to Canada. When the plane lands, an outbreak takes off. The first victim of the flu is 51-year-old actor Arthur Leander who suffers a fatal heart attack in the middle of a live performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear. An audience member, Jeevan, attempts to revive him as a child actor, Kirsten Raymonde, watches him die.

The trauma caused by Leander’s death cannot be processed before the plane of infected passengers has spread the flu to the rest of the area. Within hours, hospitals are past capacity, doctors are infected, and the end has begun.

Readers don’t come in contact with Kristen for another 20 years. At this point, she has joined forces with a group of nomadic performers known as the Travelling Symphony. This crew of 20 musicians and actors caravans their way across the Great Lakes region, stopping in shanty towns and communities made up of a handful of families. 

As Kirsten and the rest of the Travelling Symphony stop to perform in St. Deborah by the water, they are quick to learn they will not be reuniting with former symphony members as they had hoped, but rather that they were placing themselves in the crosshairs of a doomsday cult leader.

Station Eleven describes a world that most people today fear: loved ones dying, leaving no time to mourn, and the collapse of society and technology—leaving the few people standing to fend for themselves and resort back to the way of living hundreds of years ago.

The future Mandel describes is dismal at best, but the way she describes it proves that humanity is more than the things created; it’s the simple human connections built. 

Mandel excels at creating a story that engages readers from the first page to the last. As she explores the lives of Leander, his ex-wives, and their interactions with Jeevan and Kirsten, she drops little hints that keep readers wanting to follow the characters. Why does Kristen have two knife tattoos and never wants to discuss them? Where did she get these comic books about Dr. Eleven and why does the cult leader have a dog by the same name as Dr. Eleven’s?

While these questions Mandel provokes leave readers searching for more in later pages, some questions arise that leave readers searching for answers after the book ends.

Humanity has resorted back to the most rudimentary of forms and yet none of the characters are overly concerned. There are some conversations surrounding food and safety from attackers, but it is never a primary concern for the symphony.

Station Eleven proves that the Travelling Symphony’s motto of “Survival is inefficient” is correct. Physical survival is not the only aspect of humanity’s continuation. Survival goes beyond food to eat and physical safety.

Instead, Station Eleven proves that when society comes to an end and the material world falls, human relationships and classical traditions will be the only survivors.

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