My goal this year was to read the books that have received the most reviews, but I lost track of that somewhere along the way. Well, I’m probably the last person to read this book, so if I’m going to try to at least partially keep to my goals, this is as good a place to start as any. This has been reviewed 40 times, and has an average rating is 4.51 stars. It’s fair to say that it is well loved.
For all of that, Station Eleven is a bit hard to explain. It’s ostensibly a post-apocalyptic tale of people trying to rebuild a life in a world that has been ravaged by a flu pandemic. But it’s also a mosaic of lives bisected by tragedy, and interwoven by the shared relationships of people long dead. This is more than a survival tale, and it’s not dystopic fiction. If anything, this story is affirmational.
I think we are drawn to the apocalypse for many reasons, but most prominent among them is a deep disaffection for contemporary society. I don’t mean to say that I think everyone who likes post-apocalyptic stories wants to see the world bathed in blood, but I think there is a part of a lot of people that looks to the past as something to be duplicated. As something worthy of experiencing. This, I think, is what writers are tapping into with these stories: a quasi-historical foundational society that people want to relive. So, for me, post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t a sub-genre of horror set in the future, it’s a regressive fantasy that seeks to recreate a past as a way of re-framing contemporary society.
In that way, for instance, The Walking Dead is a nihilistic indictment of modern America, where the American family is besieged by the teeming forces of capitalism, authoritarian greed and corruption, and perverse indifference to human suffering by outsiders. It’s set in an alternate present, but longs for a world where the paterfamilias can carve out a place for his family and protect them from the dangerous life on the frontier. The frontier savages are replaced here with traditional George Romero (Georgian? Romeran?) zombies, who were stand-ins, in the original Dawn of the Dead, for mindless consumers. It’s no surprise, then, that in an era of a dying middle class, increasing wealth disparity, diminished wages, and a rise in domestic radicalism (on all fronts) that there would be a proliferation not only in zombie stories specifically, but post-apocalyptic fiction in general. We live in a time where people want to start over.
But that’s not what Mandel does, here. Her world is centered around the theme of loss. The loss of a world its characters are likely to never see again. The loss of family and friends who they will never get the story of. The loss of an existence that was never fully appreciated while there was a time for admiration. But what Mandel does so well is that she doesn’t take our sympathy for their loss for granted. Instead of being an accepted part of these kinds of stories, she brings it to forefront, and makes it the center of her entire narrative.
While The Walking Dead focuses on recreating a society overwhelmed by suffering, Station Eleven dwells on the minor details of a world already being forgotten. A museum is constructed to commemorate the loss, characters carry with them talismans of the past, and the narrative itself alternates between the past and present, with each serving as a counterpoint to the other, emphasizing and accentuating the idea that we seldom appreciate what we have while it’s within our grasp. The past is never far from the present in Station Eleven, which makes the change after the pandemic more real, and the tragedy of it more impactful. Because Mandel takes the time to show us who these characters are, how they’re connected, and where they come from, you really feel the disconnect in this society between the present they are trapped in and the past they are trying to hold on to.
And the key difference is that the ever-present loss on display in Station Eleven is affirmational, not obsessively torturous. Value what you have, cherish those who are with you, and appreciate what is around you. The point isn’t, “look how bad it could be”, it’s that there is value in even the smallest of pleasures, and that value needs to be appreciated before it’s gone. So often the characters in this book aren’t doing that while they have time
I loved this book. It is precisely what I want post-apocalyptic fiction to be. To the one or two of you who haven’t read this yet, I strongly urge you to pick it up. If you have already read this, and want something similar, I suggest giving The Dog Stars a shot.