I first read this book in 2017, when the realities of a worldwide pandemic still felt like sci-fi (maybe not to a lot of scientists and epidemiologists, but to me, at least). I've been wanting to re-read it in today's world, where we know what's possible.
In Station Eleven, a highly contagious and fast-acting virus effectively causes the complete collapse of civilization. So many people perish (99.6%) that, for those that survive, it can feel like they're the only ones left, at least in the first few weeks and months after the collapse. Soon, though, people begin to find each other and establish small settlements. Or, like one of the protagonists, Kirsten, join a group of wandering musicians and actors, collectively called The Traveling Symphony, that brings music and Shakespearean plays to the communities it travels between.
The narrative volleys back and forth in time, with "day 1" being the first day the pandemic arrives in Toronto, Canada, where young Kirsten is acting in a performance of King Lear. The marquee actor, Arthur Leander, dies of a heart attack on stage. A EMT trainee from the audience named Jeevan leaps on stage to perform CPR. From there, we follow Kirsten, Jeevan, and Arthur's multiple ex-wives and son through the pandemic all the way to "year 20," as well as learning of their pasts (in particular, Arthur's past and how he met his wives). The past and present are blended together seamlessly, as many characters from the past begin to cross paths in the burnt out, terrifying version of North America. Amid all this, Kirsten encounters a man who calls himself simply, The Prophet - a man who has amassed a cult following, and terrorizes communities into submission. She soon finds that she and The Prophet have something very specific in common from the pre-pandemic world.
I don't know if it was more meaningful than when I read it in 2017, but I do think it hit closer to home. This book obviously shows a much more extreme version of a pandemic than the one we witnessed (and continue to grapple with). But in 2017, it was pure supposition to me, whereas in 2023... I get it. I get how rapidly things can fall apart - the panic, the bulk purchasing, the every-man-for-himself mentality, the denial, the hospitals filling up. I get that if Covid-19 had been even more contagious, rapid, and deadly, we might be right where Kirsten and the other 4% of survivors find themselves in Station Eleven. I also see the humanity that shines through, and the belief that communities can reform, creating families of people who care for each other.
This is one of the very few post-apocolyptic books that I really loved. It was clever and thoughtful and haunting. Station Eleven feels realistic in both its portrayals of the chaos and violence of collapse, as well as the strength of character that continues to create community, art, and hope amidst it.
Highly recommend! I don't know much about the TV show based on this book. I've heard mixed reviews, and I think I like the book too much to risk ruining it for myself.
UP NEXT: Butts: A Backstory, by Heather Radke