Shakespeare meets sci-fi

Station Eleven is a theatrical spin to the post-apocalyptic narrative

Station Eleven

I rarely delve into the realm of science fiction, but Emily St. John-Mandel’s novel Station Eleven has given me reason to reconsider. 

Mandel’s work is both beautiful and unique — a result of  her writing style, the masterful way in which she oscillates between the past and present in her storytelling and the novel’s setting on the author’s home soil, Canada. 

The story begins with the outbreak of a disease which kills the majority of the population across the globe. Due to the devastation of the so-called ‘Georgian Flu’, there are no more phones, no Internet, no car or air travel, no electricity — just people reverting to the basics to survive. 

The novel follows the story of the Travelling Symphony, which traverses the sparsely-set communities that have emerged along the shores of Lake Huron following the outbreak performing Shakespearean playsfor its residents. 

While the narrative begins with the death of an individual character — a 51-year-old actor whose death precedes the pandemic by mere hours — it transforms into a web of story lines that remain interwoven through the characters’ multifaceted relationships with that first casualty.  

Although I like to think of myself as an optimist who doesn’t like to dwell on the apocalypse, Mandel’s suspenseful writing had me completely hooked. She uses characters dwelling in the worst-case scenario to elucidate the disparity between survival and living. 

The characters’ attempt to recreate a society where nothing can be taken for granted explores the tension between those seeking equality and community, and those looking to gain power at all costs. 

Interactions between the familial Travelling Symphony and some of the towns they visit, where people either follow the rules set by a not-so-democratic leader or are banished into the wilderness, show the stark disparity between these interests. 

Station Eleven is both a credit to the science fiction genre — it won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award — and a show of force for Canadian literature. 

Canadian novels tend to gain more local than global recognition, but the success of Mandel’s work has extended beyond national borders.

I believe a major reason for this international success is her novel’s ability to make us consider who we are as people giving us a new and somewhat jarring, perspective on the world as we know it. 

Having put down Station Eleven, painfully aware that I had just read the final pages and the story was now over, the Travelling Symphony’s motto continued to resonate in my mind — survival is insufficient. 

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