This isn’t a review because I haven’t finished the book yet, but as I’m reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, I keep returning to the same thoughts and wanted to work them out here.
Dystopian novels, particularly in YA, are rather popular these days, aren’t they? Of course, Station Eleven isn’t YA, but it’s definitely dystopian…Anyway, like a lot of other readers, I find myself very attracted to stories of the world falling apart, or more specifically, what comes after, and I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that. Maybe we are jazzed by stories of survival, of people making it under the worst of circumstances. Maybe it’s because, as dire and bleak as these fictional ruined worlds are, there is a strong message of hope. Maybe we all subconsciously harbor a fear of extinction and annihilation; maybe in the back of our minds we wonder if something like this could happen in our lifetime, could happen to us, and seeing such horrors and devastation played out in fictional worlds, and having the final outcome be vastly different, but tenable, eases some of those fears. I don’t know. Maybe it’s all of that or some of that or a lot of other things, but there has to be a reason why so many of us are drawn to these stories of death and rebirth.
But I digress (a phrase I use a lot, so you may as well get used to it now)…Station Eleven is definitely dystopian, though it is not YA, and it offers a remarkably different perspective than other dystopian novels I’ve read. Because it really isn’t about kicking ass, it’s about the human experience from the perspective of a bunch of different characters, all from differing backgrounds. It’s about the before, not just the after. It’s about the drudgery of existing in a harsh, new and totally unknown reality, of how people find their way through, how they adapt in a world that is now almost completely foreign to them, how they make family out of strangers. So far, there isn’t any kick-assery, just surviving a nearly unimaginable reality full of loss and fear and trying to find and make what ever joy is still possible.
This focus on the real day to day human experience of their societal collapse makes it feel real. And it’s real in a way that makes me think about things that other dystopian novels have not. As I’m reading, I keep thinking that the reality depicted is completely foreign from our current experience in the US, but it sounds frighteningly similar to how I imagine life is in some less fortunate countries, where there is civil unrest and economic instability, where you never really know if you are safe or where you are going to sleep that night or where you are going to get your next meal, where rape and murder and all sorts of lawlessness are the rule not the exception, where strangers become your village and your lifeline, and you must depend on and trust each other just to make it through another day.
As an American, that kind of life is something I know nothing about. It’s a life that I can’t even begin to imagine becoming my own reality, one that would be tantamount to the world, my world, coming to a virtual end. This is a work of fiction, that’s true, and I don’t know that it was the intent of the author that readers make the connection that I’m making, but I have to say that, for me, this connection is really making the book for me. This is one of those books that will cause me to expand my reading horizons in search of better understanding, a book that I will buy (currently reading a library copy) because I know I’ll read it again. The work itself is great, very accessible, but this unexpected reality check is by far the most valuable part of this particular reading experience. And for that I’m ever so grateful.