Gone are the Before times—that is, your life before Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven got its own miniseries on HBO. For those who’ve watched, Station Eleven has altered, shaken, and soothed our souls as we reckon with the beauty and damage of living through a pandemic. Sometimes, Station Eleven felt too real; other times, it inspired hope.
Both the book and television adaptation invite questions about the survival of people and memories. When presented by Station Eleven’s intricate cast of characters, collective redemption as a new civilization feels possible.
If you cherished the themes and characters in Station Eleven, the following five books are equally potent with their masterful storytelling, poetic passages, and hopeful messages. All of them remind us that the world is in peril, and it’s in our best interest to address our problems here and now.
1. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Parable of the Sower is the first of a two-book series from Octavia Butler about fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina as she sets out to protect her weakening community from societal collapse. Set in a Los Angeles suburb that witnesses the perils of inept leadership, worker exploitation, and policing of vulnerable communities, the book deals with public health issues that read like today’s top headlines. What’s even more unsettling: Parable of the Sower is set in 2025, which is just around the corner.
But where there’s fallow there are bound to be flowers: Butler includes promising passages on building social relations, mutual aid, and communities. Parable of the Sower is as urgent as it is beautiful, and according to Butler, change can be good.
2. Severance by Ling Ma
In Ling Ma’s Severance, disease is a slow burn, which more accurately captures how the covid-19 pandemic has occupied our lives compared to the massive and quick spread of Station Eleven’s Georgia Flu. You’ve been warned: this book feels close to our reality in that it observes how people at large would adapt to a virus; the characters talk of rearranging their lives around untimely inconveniences instead of organizing around the larger looming issue of how corporate capitalism has turned them into vulnerable, burned-out individuals.
Thank goodness Ma is not self-serious. On the contrary, her satirical commentary about coming of age as a millennial climbing the corporate ladder asks us to reevaluate what matters most in our lives.
3. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
In The Book of M, the characters are beholden to a different kind of calamity: The Forgetting, a phenomenon in which they lose their shadows, followed by the slow deterioration of their memories.
Of these post-apocalypse novel recommendations, this story introduces the most horrific concept of all: how does society start anew with no groundwork, as the survivors fail to remember anything about their former lives? Shepherd’s dark and dystopian world then borders on fantasy when magical elements come into play to bring light back into a darkening civilization. The Book of M is interested in asking readers about the effects of our memory loss and what it’s like to forget in the mind versus forget in the heart.
4. The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele
Kimi Eisele’s novel is a quiet reflection on rebuilding. Main characters Carson and Beatrix have moved on from survival in its starkest sense after a flu outbreak in the United States. There is nothing to gain from denying the failures of the country’s government and any other semblance of structure. In fact, there is only love, the most urgent and worthwhile need to seek after ruin. The book follows the two protagonists as they try to make good decisions about the communities they run into in their journey to find each other again after being 3,000 miles apart before the collapse of society.
The Lightest Object in the Universe is kind and compassionate about our imperfections as humans. After all, even as the world ends we will want our love stories.
5. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
With On Such a Full Sea, Chang-Rae Lee has written an unsettling and sometimes-poetic study of poverty and wealth disparity, a harbinger of where we are headed if we continue to make individualistic choices about our consumption and relationships. Told through the point-of-view of B-Mor, “once known as Baltimore,” the settlement recounts the legend of their resident Fan, a fish-tank diver who left behind her haven in search of her lover. Along the way, she faces dangers in ravaged villages and “Open Counties” where inhabitants live lawlessly to ensure their own survival over the longevity of humankind.
Though On Such a Full Sea feels more surreal than the standard dystopian fiction, there remains a lot to take away about our own reality. Without horror or judgment, Lee warns there is no chance at rebirth if the only tactic we bring into the world after a disaster is to think about ourselves before others.
Lisa Kwon is a writer and reporter based in Los Angeles, CA, with an interest in arts and food culture. You can find her work at L.A. Taco, Eater, Cultured magazine, National Geographic, and Time Out.