Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Knopf) is now on the best-seller lists. I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories, so I was eager to check out Mandel’s tale. It’s set in the indefinite future, some fifteen years after something called the Georgia Flu has wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population. Civilization’s complex energy and transportation infrastructure has been decimated. The story centers on a troupe of musicians and Shakespearean actors who travel the east coast of Lake Michigan, putting on plays and concerts.
Like any self-respecting post-apocalyptic novel, the story is dark. Characters often must kill or be killed. But shafts of light shine through. The troupe is dedicated to the proposition (borrowed from an old Star Trek episode) that “To survive is insufficient.” The actors and musicians are determined to bring the comforts and insights of art and culture into their audiences’ bleak world. Thus they keep alive the humanizing and elevating aspects of human creativity and invention—even while the technological wonders of the former world are now absent. Mandel suggests that even in the worst circumstances, we may still have art.
Here’s a sidelight: though Mandel sees art bringing consolation and hope into crippled civilization, she doesn’t see a similar role for religion. Instead, religion is represented by a murderous prophet who seeks his own power and self-aggrandizement. Faith is violently sectarian, something that closes a group in on itself and responds to outsiders with enmity. So Station Eleven raises questions about the viability of religion: is it inherently, at least when pushed to extremes, closed off and reactionary? Mandel doesn’t explicitly suggest answers to such questions; she simply tells her story. But the theologically minded reader is given something to ponder.