Station Eleven is the fourth novel by Emily St John Mandel and takes place after a fictional flu pandemic devastates the world. But this is not your typical post-apocalyptic novel.
The novel is set across several timelines. Each timeline revolves around different characters. Each character has a connection to Arthur, the famous actor who dies on stage in a production of King Lear at the beginning of the novel. Arthur’s death coincides with the outbreak of the Georgia Flu, which kills 99% of the Earth’s population in a few weeks. One timeline follows Kirsten, who survived the pandemic as a child and grows up as part of the Travelling Symphony. The Symphony performs Shakespeare plays to the surviving communities, with the aim of preserving art and culture. We also follow the life of Clark, Arthur’s best friend, who coincidentally survives the Georgia Flu outbreak as he is travelling to Arthur’s funeral. Mandel successfully interweaves timelines, creating a non-linear structure. Only at the end of the novel are the connections between characters made fully clear.
Mandel encourages us to reflect on the omnipresent nature of technology in our lives. The internet does not exist in the world after the Georgia Flu outbreak. In modern society, we often take for granted the ability to contact loved ones and access information at our fingertips. But most of human history looks more like the post-pandemic world of Station Eleven. Rapid technological advancement is a recent phenomenon.
We follow Mandel’s characters as they search for meaning in their lives. Kirsten finds purpose as a part of the Symphony. This gives her the feeling of being part of a community. Jeevan is initially unsatisfied with his career in the entertainment industry and his relationship with Laura. He explores many occupations before finding fulfilment as a paramedic. Arthur finds meaning by rekindling past relationships. In his final moments, he realises that he has neglected his loved ones and strives to reconnect with them.
Some characters prefer to forget the past whilst others actively try to remember it. Kirsten believes that “the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.” In contrast, others hold that we need to be informed about what happened to ensure that we do not repeat past mistakes. Clark creates the Museum of Civilisation to conserve history and educate new generations about the past. This conflict in perspectives is illustrated by a debate surrounding how much children should be taught about the old world.