Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read for the 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge, the Women in Genre Fiction Challenge, and the Apocalypse Now! Reading Challenge.

Mandel is a good writer. She writes an awesome literary piece. So if you’re into literary writing, it’s awesome.

If you’re into post-apocalyptic fiction as a genre, it’s okay.

This is the story of a group of people who happen to be connected through the people they know in six degrees of separation, and a limited-edition graphic novel called Station Eleven that was created by one of the characters. And this is what happens to them when a lethal plague rolls through the world and brings about a total collapse of society.

Shades of The Stand except for not as grim because Mandel doesn’t dwell overmuch on the corpses in the cars and what people did in the last few hours and whatnot. She doesn’t even dwell overmuch on the immediate struggle for survival, and this is the thing that I find frustrating as a reader of apocalyptic fiction. To me, the struggle for survival is the heart of the plot! At least, if you’re going to write about the people who actually lived through it! She sidesteps this by starting backwards — this is where some of the characters are after the apocalypse — and then telling the story in a series of flashbacks.

Except that not all of the characters get equal treatment. In some cases I feel that the story of a few of the best are completely lost in the shuffle. It’s like she was interested at first, but got bored, and rushed the ending so that she could just get it over with. Was it a space issue? Very irritating. I won’t tell you which ones because that might spoil the book for you.

Teaser/Spoiler — Not all the characters survive. That, I approve of. Sometimes people just die. And they should so you can keep guessing.

Most of the story, ultimately, sets up a pivotal event that probably could have been told in a short story, except that this is a character-driven novel and you care about the event because of the background of the characters, shown in little vignettes. I don’t mind that, but I believe that most apocalyptica readers will.

Not all of them, of course, and this novel was (rightfully) nominated for three major sci-fi awards and won one of them. Having read quite a few award-winners now, I begin to see what wins. It’s not about style or quality of writing, it’s about the ideas presented within.

And Mandel has some great ideas I’ve never seen before in an apocalyptic novel. First of all, the story centers in part around a company of Shakespearean actors and musicians who travel around to the post-apocalyptic settlements performing, just like troupes of actors did in the high Middle Ages before the Black Plague ruined all that. Why? As their Trekkie-stolen motto says, “Because survival is insufficient.”

Well yes, of course, people are going to need entertainment. People can’t just work all the time. Mandel might be the first I’ve seen who has addressed this in anything more than a perfunctory manner in apocalyptica. I think there’s a general assumption that artists just aren’t going to survive the apocalypse because they’re too flighty and impractical or have weak constitutions or something. But they’re also creative, so doesn’t that count for something in a world where you have improvise a whole new set of skills?

I love that she’s given some thought to this aspect of human life. Though I almost get the sense, in a way, that she sat around with her friends on an idle afternoon or at a dinner party and said, “Hey, you know what would be cool? What if we were a travelling troupe of actors and musicians, like they used to do in Shakespeare’s time?” and then she wrote a book to speculate how such a scenario would be possible in a modern setting. I found myself wondering how much of the character of Kirsten, who was a child actor before the apocalypse, was autobiographical.

The other thing that she did that I thought was really great was that she centered a lot of the story around a bunch of people stranded at an airport. Because, who says you’ll be at home when the apocalypse comes? Again, there I wish she’d told more of the story. She does things like mention that the international travelers made an effort to learn English after a couple of months, but I’d like to hear about how that went.

Then she does some things, in my opinion, very badly. For instance, there is a situation in which some of the members of the troupe disappear. The company seems mystified — where could they possibly have gone? Why is there no trace? Except that they just came out of an obvious situation that would explain it, and there’s an obvious reason, which they were warned about, that might have created the problem, and I just can’t believe they could all be that stupid. Also – they found no trace? These people have been walking through the wilderness from town to settlement for twenty years, and they can successfully hunt dear and avoid bears and moose in the Canadian woods in the Great Lakes area. Surely nobody is that good at hiding their tracks! Deer are much better at it than humans. Give me a break, especially when the characters are so smart in so many other ways. When the characters are deliberately stupid to facilitate the plot, you need to change the situation or change the plot.

One thing that she does amazingly well, however, is that she gives us the impression that people want civilization. Rather than immediately degenerating into the world of Mad Max, our protagonists, mostly Canadian before the disaster, do their best to be as civilized as possible. They take up guns with reluctance, and every man in sight doesn’t suddenly get the idea that he should have a harem or that the little women-folk must be protected (which is a big criticism I have of The Stand).

I was very conflicted about this book, vacillating between “it sucks” and “it’s awesome” at intervals. And I found the ending acceptable but somewhat predictable. This is why I gave it a three star rating. It was worth my time to read, but it took work, there were a lot of things I didn’t like, and it did not really engage me fully or take me outside of myself and absorb me in the characters’ stories.

View all my reviews

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