51-year-old actor Arthur Leander dies on stage while performing King Lear in front of 8-year-old Kirsten Raymonde, who has a nonspeaking role as one of Lear’s daughters as a child. The same night, a deadly flu pandemic sweeps through Toronto and within 3 weeks has decimated 99.9% of the world’s population. Twenty years later, Kirsten roams the Great Lakes region with a Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare in a post-apocalyptic world.
Station Eleven has many accolades, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (2015), the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2014), and author George R. R. Martin’s favorite book of 2014. It’s post-apocalyptic science fiction, sort of, but it’s missing all the normal tropes, especially the dirty details of living in a world of scarcity. It’s a book that deftly interweaves a narrative following multiple characters before and after civilization’s collapse, including Arthur, his first wife Miranda, his best friend Clarke, the man named Jeeves who tried to save Arthur at his final show, and Kirsten.
In the future, Kirsten has a tattoo on her forearm, “Survival is insufficient”, taken from an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager.” She barely remembers the world before or even her own mother’s face, but she’s always remembered Arthur Leander. She collects articles and pictures of him that she finds in old celebrity gossip magazines she carries around in a ziploc bag. She also has two issues of a comic book featuring Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station, but the author of comics is only identified as M.C. The Traveling Symphony returns to town they’ve previously visited only to find it in the grip of a dangerous religious fanatic. The caravan quickly moves on, but they are pursued.
As the interconnected lives of the story are revealed, one intriguing mystery after another propels the reader through the suspenseful narrative. Despite the difficult world of the future, the tone of the novel is quiet, examining nostalgia, memory, art, inspiration, and purpose in our current world and the world of the future. It’s a thoughtful perspective on what’s important and how we make sense of the world into which we’re born. It’s a poetic snapshot of people living in extreme circumstances. It’s even a little hopeful for humanity and our ability to rise together toward a better future.
If you’re looking for grit and conflict of traditional dystopian scifi, look elsewhere. This is a lovely, elevated bit of thematic storytelling in a wasteland of post-apocalyptic fiction!
“I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.” —Dr. Eleven