By Emily St. John Mandel, Civilization in a Post-Apocalyptic World
Station Eleven is probably one of the books I recommend most frequently to other people. It’s a beautifully written and lovely story.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel opens at the onset of an outbreak of a virulent flu. In a matter of weeks, it will quickly decimate the world’s population. In its wake is a place that is disconnected, desperate and dangerous, with small communities of people trying to make their way in this brave new world.
The book fast forwards to about fifteen years later. Electricity and water are relics of the past, and kids have now grown up with this being the only world they know. The narrative focuses on a group of performers who travel from community to community in an attempt to bring some meaning to their now unrecognizable lives. This group, known as the Traveling Symphony, arrives at a town expecting to find two former members of their group that had previously decided to stay there. Instead, the disquieting little community is now run by a cult-like leader referred to as the Prophet. A young girl attempting to escape the town provides a clue to where the missing symphony members might be, a place called the Museum of Civilization. They don’t known what they’ll find there or if it even exists, but the group heads off in search anyway.
A second intertwined narrative explores the life of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, who one of the performers has taken up a hobby of collecting mementos about. Leander’s first wife is the author of a comic called Station Eleven.
It is a post-apocalyptic tale, but a surprisingly hopeful one, a story of rebuilding and putting the pieces back together again. As the characters converge upon the Museum, the novel explores the many ways groups of people create patchwork societies and norms to help them hobble together something resembling civilization.
Now, admittedly, I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic tales in general, especially those more firmly rooted in reality. But this one especially struck a chord with me. It’s not particularly fancy or edgy, and there are very little post-modernist literary devices or gimmicks involved. Instead, it’s a well-paced, quickly moving but thoughtful novel that unravels evenly to reveal a story about society and individuals attempting to rebuild a ruined world.
As the story moves forward, it adds dimensions and layers to a well-conceived vision of how this could look. Of course, it’s a short book so it’s not an all-encompassing, epic type of world we’re seeing here. Instead, it’s told from the perspective of a few characters and only hints at how the rest of the world is getting along.
Station Eleven Movie Adaptation
Station Eleven is being adapted into a limited series to be aired on the new HBO Max streaming service (it’s a new service that’s coming out in 2020 that will compete with Netflix, Hulu, etc).
For all the details, see Everything We Know About the Station Eleven Adaptation.
Read it or Skip it?
Station Eleven the type of book that I am generally inclined to recommend to other people, especially casual readers. The subject matter — a realistic dystopia and a musing on civilization and human nature is something most people can get into. It’s accessible, but substantive. And its hopeful, curious and gently lyrical tone make it easily enjoyable to read.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Part I: The TheaterChapters 1 - 2 In Toronto, during a production of King Lear, Arthur Leander (an actor playing the role of King Lear) has a heart attack. Jeevan is a paramedic-in-training who is in the audience. Jeevan rushes to the stage and attempts CPR before a cardiologist takes over. Kirsten Raymonde is a young child actress who witnesses this. Jeevan comforts her and helps her to look for Tanya, who's Arthur's girlfriend as well as the person in charge of Kirsten. They find her, and Tanya gives Kirsten a paperweight. Afterwards, Jeevan looks for but is unable to find his girlfriend, Laura. Instead, he talks with a paparazzi outside, who he knows from his former work as a paparazzi. Backstage, they discuss to who call about Arthur's. There's his son Tyler and his ex-wife Elizabeth. They end up settling on calling Arthur's lawyer. We find out that of this group of people, the bartender will live the longest. He will die in three weeks. Chapters 3 - 6 Jeevan gets a call from Hua, a friend who is a doctor. Hua warns him that the Georgia Flu is serious and is spreading quickly. He tells Jeevan to stock upon food and to stay in his apartment. Jeevan goes to the grocery story and then to his brother Frank's apartment. Frank is a paraplegic. Arthur's lawyer calls Arthur's best friend and starts informing his ex-wives about his death. Word eventually makes it to Miranda Carroll, an ex-wife who is in Malaysia. (The book notes that this is the last month that telephones will be functional. It also includes a list of things that are casualties of the flu such as: swimming pools, medicines, planes, Internet, etc.)
Part II: A Midsummer Night's DreamChapters 7 - 8 The book jumps to 20 years after the outbreak and subsequent world collapse. It's July of Year 20. The Traveling Symphony consists of actors and musicians, and it is traveling along Lake Michigan. They've been traveling around the different settlements doing Shakespearean productions since Year 5. They are prepping for a production of King Lear. Kirsten (the little girl from earlier) is among them, and is close friends with a guy named August. The youngest member of the group, Alexandra, was born after the world collapse and knows little about life prior to the outbreak. As they travel, they break into abandoned houses. August likes to collect TV guides; Kirsten likes to collect tabloids that mention Arthur Leander. He once gave her a series of "Dr. Eleven" comic books by someone named M.C. that she still has and loves. Issue #1 is called "Station Eleven." Dr. Eleven lives on a space station and has a dog named Luli. Chapters 9 - 10 The Traveling Symphony, which consists of three caravans, arrives at a settlement called St. Deborah by the Water. The whole settlement feels "off" and there's less people here than last time. They decide to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream to help lighten the mood in the settlement. Kirsten goes looking for Charlie and Jeremy (the "sixth guitar"). They are members of the troupe that stuck around here last time the group came here. They find grave markers for them, but no graves. Maria, a local person, tells Kirsten that Charlie and Jeremy had their baby, Annabel, and left. She discreetly adds that Charlie (female) rejected The Prophet's advances and had to leave quickly. Chapters 11 - 12 The audience enjoys the performance, but after The Prophet shows up to give a sermon, saying that everything happens for a reason and refers to the epidemic as a "cleansing." The group's conductor asks the Prophet about Charlie and about all the grave markers they see. The Prophet says that if someone has a "death of the soul" or leaves without permission, they receive funerals. The Prophet also has a dog named Luli. The conductor wants to get out of there ASAP, but a small local boy stops to ask if they have permission to leave. They head out anyway and the boy asks to leave with them, but the conductor says no. He's afraid they'll be accused of kidnapping. He also says that the Prophet asked them to leave Alexandra behind to be his next wife, but obviously he said no. The group heads toward Severn City, where they've heard about a settlement located in an old airport. They hope to find Charlie and Jeremy there. Kirsten looks over her prized possessions, including her comics and a glass paperweight.
Part III: I Prefer You With A CrownChapters 13 - 15 (14 years pre-outbreak) This chapter opens based on a photograph from one of Kirsten's tabloids about Arthur Leander. It's of Arthur and a girl who ends up being his first wife. Arthur and the woman, Miranda, are at a restaurant. Miranda has a bruise on her face, and Arthur encourages her to leave her abusive boyfriend, Pablo. As Miranda dons her sunglasses and goes outside, the photographer takes the photo. We find out about Arthur growing up on a isolated island called Delano, going to college, moving to L.A. to become an actor. He meets his best friend, Clark, and gets some acting work. When he's in Toronto, his mother tells him to meet up with Miranda because she also grew up on Delano. Miranda is dating Pablo, but they go to lunch and then part ways. Arthur gets famous. Years later, he reaches back out to Miranda. By then, Miranda is an administrative assistant at Neptune Logistics. She spends her free time writing a comic book project called Dr. Eleven. The space station in Dr. Eleven is partially broken, and its characters must struggle to find ways to survive. The day after the restaurant scene, Miranda packs her stuff and leaves Pablo to move in with Arthur. Years later, Miranda and Arthur are married and living in Hollywood with their dog Luli. They are having a dinner party. Clark is there. Miranda is quiet and feels out of place in Hollywood. Arthur talks to his co-star, Elizabeth Colton, and Miranda realizes something is going on between them. Late at night after the party, Miranda goes outside and ends up talking to one of the paparazzi, Jeevan. She goes back inside and sees the glass paperweight that Clark brought as a gift. There's also a letter Arthur is writing to someone named "V". Three month later, Miranda and Arthur divorce, and Elizabeth moves in with Arthur. Miranda keeps working on Dr. Eleven. Chapters 16 - 18 The book intersperses parts of a transcript of an interview between Kirsten and François Diallo in Year 15. Diallo is a librarian and is trying to keep an oral history of events. She asks him if he's ever seen other copies of Dr. Eleven (no) and tells him about her brother who died and how the Symphony found her afterwards. A year before the outbreak, Arthur and Clark meet up in London. Arthur has just been served divorce papers from his third wife. Arthur and Elizabeth (2nd wife) had a son, but she's moving with him to Israel.
Part IV: StarshipChapters 19 - 22 Back in Year 20, the Symphony stops to rest. Scouts are sent out to see if The Prophet sent anyone after them. Meanwhile, they discover a stowaway. It's a 12-year-old girl named Eleanor from St. Deborah who was supposed to be The Prophet's next wife. She tells them that Charlie and Jeremy went to Museum of Civilization, which is rumored to be near Severn City. A few days later, they come across an old school and go in carefully to look for instruments. They see a skeleton of a man that was killed by a bullet. (In the Diallo interview, François asks Kirsten about her tattoos of knives, but she tells him he knows better than to ask.) Kirsten thinks about how the world is changing. She wonders if Alexandra may be able to grow up without ever having to kill someone else. Then, Dieter tells Kirsten about airplanes because she was too young to remember them. Dieter and Sayid go to scout the road behind them while Kirsten and August serve as lookouts. However, soon they realize Dieter and Sayid have gone missing. Chapters 23 - 25 No one's sure what happened. The protocol for getting separated is to head to the destination and wait, so they continue towards Severn City. However, that night, another person disappears when they are searching for dinner. Soon, August and Kirsten go off to loot a golf course and end up getting separated from the Symphony. A few days later, traveling by themselves, they come across a man named Finn. Kirsten recognizes his kids from St. Deborah. Finn is cautious at first, but then admits that he left before the Prophet took over. After, they come across an un-looted house, which is a rarity. Kirsten looks for a copy of "Dear V", a book she lost a while back that consists entirely of letters from Arthur to his friend "V". V is Victoria, who is Arthur's friend from home. In the letters, he tells all about developments in his life. Chapter 26 This chapter is a flashback to before the outbreak. Elizabeth talks with Clark about the publication of Dear V by Victoria. They agree to meet up to talk about it.
Part V: TorontoChapters 27 - 30 (Seven years before the outbreak) Jeevan is trying to move away from being a paparazzi and into entertainment journalism. He has an interview with Arthur. Arthur gets along with Jeevan and offers him an exclusive story, but Jeevan can't tell anyone for 24 hours. Arthur says he's leaving Elizabeth for Lydia Marks (third wife), but he's committed to co-parenting his and Elizabeth's son, Tyler. Years later as the outbreak begins, Jeevan sits in his brother Frank's apartment and remembers that he kept his promise to wait 24 hours. It's one of the few moments in his professional life that he's proud of. In Franks apartment, they wait as news rolls in about the outbreak. They wait as newsrooms empty out. Soon, the internet stops working and then the lights go out. By Day 30, running water has stopped. Chapters 31 - 37 (In the Diallo interview, Kirsten remembers the audience member who helped Arthur and was nice to her, but can't remember his name. Her brother Peter later brought her home, but her parents never returned that night. They must have been one of the first ones to die from the epidemic. Later, she and Peter tried to drive away, but there were too many abandoned cars on the roads so they had to travel by foot. ) By Day 47, Jeevan starts to wonder about how they can leave. Frank, who was paralyzed while covering a war as a journalist, tells him to go on without him. On Day 58, Frank reads to Jeevan a passage he wrote in a book he's ghostwriting about how being remembered makes people immortal. Jeevan soon heads out of the apartment. (It's implied that Frank kills himself with sleeping pills.)
Part VI: The AirplanesChapter 38 In Year 20, Kirsten and Dieter talk about parallel universes and then get moving again. Soon, they are close to Severn City. They talk about the man they met, Finn. Kirsten tells Dieter that it was the Prophet who marked Finn. Dieter tells Kirsten he thinks the mark (it looked like a lowercase t with an extra line across it) represents an airplane. Chapters 39 - 41 (Two weeks before collapse) Miranda is meeting up with Arthur after his father has died, even though they hadn't spoken since the divorce. Arthur asks Miranda to meet him backstage at his production of King Lear, and she goes. Arthur tells her about the upcoming publication of Dear V. Victoria never responded to his letters, and now, she's publishing all of them. Arthur's son Tyler is now eight and still living with Elizabeth in Jerusalem. Miranda gives him the first two issues of the Dr. Eleven comic books. Later, she remembers that she forgot to give him the paperweight that Clark had given them and has it couriered over instead. Two weeks later, Arthur dies, and Clark is phoning the ex-wives. The next day as the outbreak starts, Clark gets on a flight that Elizabeth and Tyler happen to be on. It gets diverted, and they all deplane in Severn City. Meanwhile, Miranda get the Flu soon after finding out about Arthur's death. She passes out on a beach and dies.
Part VII: The TerminalChapters 42 - 45 The people stranded in the Severn City Airport mark off time as it passes. In Year 20, Clark considers that he's lucky to still be alive. He keeps a small museum of items from civilization. By now, many of the people who live at the Airport either walked there or were born there. He recalls the initial days after the outbreak, hearing about the news with Elizabeth and young Tyler. By Day 3, the vending machines were empty. By Day 5, they break into a gift shop and by Day 8, a TSA agents hunts down a deer for them to eat. On Day 15, one of the pilots decides to fly to L.A. to be with his family and lets anyone else join him, leaving 54 people living at the airport. Clark makes a friend, Dolores. Elizabeth prays a lot. As people discuss the epidemic, Tyler parrots his mother's comments that everything happens for a reason. Clark starts his Museum of Civilization. On Day 100, they send out scouts, who return with some supplies. The next day the first survivor to join them, James, arrives on foot. By Year 15, there are 300 people living in the airport. Elizabeth and Tyler left back in Year 2 with a religious group, and Clark remembers feeling unsettled by Tyler who seemed to think they were saved for a reason. In the fall of that year, a trader drops off a copy of the interview Kirsten gave to Diallo, and Clark is surprised to see mention of Arthur. (In the Diallo interview, Kirsten talks about having to hurt or kill others to survive. She also tells him her brother Peter stepped on a nail and died from the infection.) Chapter 46 In Year 15, Jeevan is drinking wine near a river. After he left the apartment, he walked for 1,000 miles before finding a settlement called McKinley in Year 3. There are currently 27 families there. Jeevan married Daria in Year 10. Jeevan serves as the doctor in the area. A man, Edward, arrives in the area, needing help. He's been shot. He say the Prophet showed up with 20 followers and kidnapped his wife and son. He demanded his guns and ammunition in exchange for the boy. He wanted to keep the wife for his men, but the wife refused, was shot and died. Chapter 47 In Year 19, Clark is 70. He gets introduced to the new arrivals, Clark, Jeremy and Annabel. They tell Clark about the Prophet they came across in St. Deborah, who Clark realizes with horror is Tyler.
Part VIII: The ProphetChapters 48 - 49 Near the airport, Kirsten and August see signs for it and hear a dog bark. They also see Saiyd with two men and a boy, all of whom are armed. August shoots an arrow into one man, and Kirsten throws a knife into the other. The boy runs away. Saiyd tells them the prophet is nearby. He had heard whimpering in the woods, went to check it out and was drugged and captured. Also, Dieter died from being drugged, and the other person (the clarinet) got away. The prophet went after them because he wanted Eleanor (the stowaway) back. It turns out the clarinet was the one warned The Traveling Symphony about the Prophet's location and plans. It happened at the same time Kirsten and August were looting the golf course. The Symphony then had to change course quickly, which is why the two of them were left behind. Chapters 50 - 52 As the three of them get closer to the airport, they hear the dog again and know that the Prophet is near. They hide in the woods, but Kirsten is found by the Prophet, two men, the boy and the dog. Kirsten tells the Prophet that Saiyd and August are dead, though they are actually hiding. The Prophet orders the boy to shoot Kirsten and he is crying. Kirsten recognizes lines The Prophet is saying from the Dr. Eleven comics and repeats other lines back to him, but it has no effect. The boy finally shoots, but he shoots the Prophet in the head. August then kills the other two men. The boy then kills himself. The Symphony's scouts come across them, and head to the caravans to let them know they've been reunited. The three of them continue on to the airport. Kirsten calls to Luli, who follows her. Inside, Sayid is taken to the infirmary. Kirsten meets Clark, who recognizes her. They were once introduced a long time ago. He brings her to a telescope at the top of a tower. Kirsten looks in disbelief when she sees a town in the distance with light in a pattern that looks like an electrical grid. Meanwhile, the rest of the Symphony arrives at the airport.
Part IX: Station ElevenChapters 53 - 55 The day of Arthur's death and the outbreak, Arthur is thinking about moving to Israel to be near his son, Tyler. He has sent a copy of the Station Eleven comic books to Tyler. His other set he gives to Kirsten when she shows up. He also gives Tanya the paperweight and tells Tanya that he is going to pay off her student loans before he leaves for Israel. As he dies onstage that night, he is lost in memories. Dr. Eleven, Vol. 1, No. 2: The Pursuit, Dr. Eleven meets the ghost of his mentor, Captain Logan. Captain Logan tells him that in the end "It was exactly like waking up from a dream." The Traveling Symphony departs after five weeks of rest. Kirsten gives one issue of Dr. Eleven to Clark for safekeeping at the Museum. As Clark reads it, he recognizes a scene as being a recreation of the dinner party he once went to and he recognizes himself, Arthur, and Elizabeth. Miranda is, of course, Dr. Eleven. As Clark wonders about the towns out there with electricity, he also thinks about what's going on in other countries and far away. He thinks that maybe somewhere there are ships setting out and moving across the water, towards other places.
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