Station Eleven starts with a production of King Lear and soon plunges into an illness that kills something like 99% of the world’s population. But not much time is spent dwelling on the collapse of civilisation, instead the plot skips ahead 20 years to show us how the survivors are…well, surviving.
We follow Kirsten as she tours settlements with her band of misfit comrades. They perform Shakespeare, play music and generally try to keep some threads of civilisation going in the post-apocalyptic world.
The setting isn’t unfamiliar to those of us who love dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction – of course it features the usual peppering of people who seem to look for any excuse to turn feral or start cults (you know, the usual). But by weaving Kirsten’s story into that of the long-gone main star of King Lear – Arthur Leander – the author brings a lot of humanity into the story and makes everything feel that much more real.
Although the story features multiple points of view, I feel like the main character of the story is the actor we meet during the opening chapters – Arthur Leander. He’s sort of the sun around which all of the important characters revolve – even decades after his death.
There’s a continual air of mystery around Kirsten’s character, which made her chapters intriguing. I could never predict how she would respond to a given situation. You never find out exactly what she’s capable of – you don’t, for example, find out what happened to her in the first year post-apocalypse. How did a child survive in that chaos?
Jeevan is one character I’d have liked to see more of. We see some of the initial crisis through his eyes at the start of the book, and although we see him later in the book, not much time is given to his story (unlike Arthur’s friend, Clark, who gets introduced a bit later).
The plot sounds like it should be implausible. I mean, it’s a bloody big world – especially when there’s no transport anymore – so the idea that these strangers ever encounter each other could easily feel a bit far-fetched, but it doesn’t feel that way when reading.
At times, it’s like reading a story within a story, but again it’s all very easy to follow and enjoyable to read.
I love the fact that the Travelling Symphony is obsessed with bringing Shakespeare and classical music to everyone, and yet takes its motto from Star Trek Voyager (go Janeway!): “Survival is insufficient”. Clark and Kirsten seem focused to preserving aspects of the past, while Jeevan is trying to create a future. There are a lot of contradictions in the characters, making them complex and relatable.
Somehow, the author manages to create a sense of nostalgia for a lost world that we’re still living in. It’s a beautifully written book.