I don’t usually do Things I Love about books for several reasons–spoilers, for one. But I can’t help it with Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a recommendation I took from Roxane Gay’s 2014 reading list. I started recommending to people before I even finished it because it was so much fun to read, surprising and scary and deeply sad as it sometimes is.
- It’s postapocalyptic speculative fiction…
- …Following a troupe of actors and musicians that travel the wastes of the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare…
- …with the words “Because Survival is Insufficient” carved on their lead caravan. Not only is this one of numerous references to pop culture that linger and evolve decades after the cataclysm, but it’s also a summary of the novel’s richest explorations: in [author’s vision], human kind does not lose its taste for beauty and passion despite the hardship of survival.
- The entire character of Miranda. I love that, through flashbacks, we get to see her young and uncertain and older and powerful but still uncertain. I love that she is an artistic and creative soul who ends up in a high-paying, respected job because she loves organization and efficiency. (Hello, fellow INTJ!) I love that she finds her creative passion sort of late in life, but that she nurtures a private thing of beauty into existence that impacts numerous other characters decades after it is created.
- I adore many of the characters, to be truthful; they are all finely drawn and utterly recognizeable, not as stock characters but as humans. They are diverse in gender, race, age, ability, and psychology; they feel differently about their losses and the purpose of their postapocalyptic struggle.
- Trauma is hard. Surviving is hard. Being with others is hard. Being alone is hard. No one is a superhero here.
- Postapocalyptic and dystopian fiction inevitably mount a critique of contemporary life: civilization is usually brought to its knees by its own sins or excesses, or else it is implicitly chastised for not being sufficiently grateful for its privileges, or the lawless or zombie-infested aftermath is an indictment of the savagery of our natures. Station Eleven picks up those tropes, examines them, and gently sets them down again. There are certainly a lot of things that her characters miss about the pre-apocalyptic world, but they acknowledge that some of it was garbage. (There is a great conversation about business jargon between two characters who used to be high-level executives and are now roasting venison on spits and whatnot.) Some humans are dangerous, some are feral and unpredictable, many long for safety and comfort and community.
And as I mentioned above, there is a strong current of optimism that even when there is little else, there is still a strong human yearning for music, magic, and beauty.