Station Eleven

stationelevenOver the past twenty years or so, I’ve read a fair bit of dystopian fiction, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (one of my very favorites of his novels.) Authors of dystopias are often doing what King calls “dancing on the grave of the world”: they’ve taken some existing problem — technology, tyranny, the environment, nuclear winter, or, in Station Eleven‘s case, the flu — and brought it to the end of times. But in the best of these novels, like The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, apocalypse takes on its original meaning in Greek: revelation. How can the end of the world open our eyes to what it means to be human?

In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel uses a nonlinear narrative to create a vivid picture of life after the Georgia Flu destroys 99.9% of the world’s population, and a strong sense of nostalgia for the world that has been lost. Twenty years after the disaster, the Traveling Symphony (motto: “Survival is Insufficient” from Star Trek: Voyager) goes from settlement to tiny settlement, playing Shakespeare and Beethoven; they break into homes looking for knives and canned food, yes, but also for poetry, musical instruments, tabloid magazines. In an airport, people who were stranded the day the flu began to erase the world’s population create a Museum of Civilization: on the shelves are Amex cards, exotic stiletto shoes, iPhones, iPads, laptops, a Nintendo console, a whole motorcycle.

Mandel plays with the back-and-forth between present and past to talk about what’s important to the human race. Survivors are desperate for stories: in a new era when strangers are suspect at best and lethal at worst, the Traveling Symphony is always welcome to town. A tiny circulating newspaper, telling stories from the flu era, is a prize. One character creates a comic (Station Eleven, in fact) in the pre-flu era that has prescient visions of the post-apocalyptic world, just as Shakespeare’s stories from his plague-ridden time are strangely relevant. But stories can also be dangerous: survivors discuss whether it’s best to tell children about what has been lost, lest it depress and disorient them. And a prophet, the leader of a cult, tells stories that could endanger anyone he comes into contact with.

I enjoyed reading this book just fine. It was very pretty: it was nicely written and structurally well put-together, and I liked some of the characters. But I have to confess to you that it bored me almost silly. This is not because I wanted it to be more gritty and violent (I read a complaint in one review that Mandel was naive about what would really happen in a post-apocalyptic world, and while this is probably so, she is welcome to imagine anything she likes.) It’s because of the unbelievably narrow worldview presented in the book.

Go back and look at what’s on the shelves at the Museum of Civilization. All the items are incredibly luxe, high-priced things. All the characters in the book except one are extremely wealthy — film stars and their (multiple) ex-wives, film producers, executives or those who work with them, artists, actors, musicians. The one character who isn’t wealthy is a paparazzo, hovering at the edge of that world. The nostalgia for what the world has lost is all for that rarefied world: air-conditioning, the light of television and computer screens, lights coming on with the flip of a switch, airplanes, concerts, arenas, plays.

What about any other world? There’s not a single character even from Canada or the US who comes from a lower-class background, who didn’t have some of these luxuries and is used to getting along without them, someone who doesn’t give a crap about Twitter. There’s one disabled character, and he commits suicide because it’s not “realistic” for him to survive. Oh, come on! What does that say about survival being insufficient? We have no sense of how the rest of the world is getting along: people who didn’t know when the lights went out because they didn’t have them anyway. These people not only have stories, they tell stories, they have an entire mythology worth listening to. What would be on the shelves of their museum? It’s not civilization if you only take the very top layer.

I agree with the motif of this book that survival is insufficient. I agree that stories are a vital part of this. But more stories, please. More, more, more.

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17 Responses to Station Eleven

  1. Deb says:

    I’ve read numerous reviews (mostly positive) of this book and yours is the first review that mentions the narrow (dare I say, elitist?) focus of the survivors. I’m surprised Mandel’s editor didn’t point it out–or perhaps her editor is also someone who believes that a future without high heels is apocalyptic!

    Your review put me in mind of something Jo Walton wrote in WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT? She posits that many middle- and upper-class (chiefly British) sf writers could not abide the social changes of the post-WWII where attention had to be paid to the working- and poorer-classes; the result, according to Walton, was a plethora of sf in the 1950s and 1960s where the lower-classes were dispatched en masse via bombs, plagues, or alien invasions, leaving bold upper-middle-class men (and sometimes plucky boys) to save what remained of the world. Like Mandel, these writers weren’t even aware of their biases.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s an interesting idea! Of course we have to work hard to be aware of our own biases if it’s going to happen at all. Being nostalgic for the present (which is what Mandel is pulling off) is all very well, but it isn’t everyone’s present, is it? That book by Walton sounds well worth reading; I’ve liked her work before.

  2. realthog says:

    There’s quite a lot of post-apocalyse fiction out there. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s third (online) edition has a useful entry here. I read one of Mandel’s other novels recently and liked it a fair amount; I’m swithering about Station Eleven lest she might have reinvented the wheel.

    • Jenny says:

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading that encyclopedia entry. It made me want to go out and read a lot of post-apocalypse fiction — probably not a good idea for my psyche, but what a project! I don’t think Mandel is reinventing the wheel here, exactly. She uses a lot of familiar tropes, for sure, but her emphasis is on human stories. Her other books are pretty much straight literary fiction, not speculative fiction, right?

  3. Leonie clark says:

    I completly agree , i am an avid reader of this genre and was bored to sobs with this book whilst everyomn praised it , so glad you saw it for wat it was a bit try hard .
    Cheers leonie

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know that I would describe it as try-hard. I did think it was well-written. If anything, I thought it didn’t try hard enough!

  4. Elle says:

    Oh, my goodness. I loved this book, and never once did I pause to think about the classism and ableism. Thank you so much for making me aware of that. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read a book review that managed to point out a flaw in a book’s composition with such judiciousness.

  5. You raise some valid points here that I somehow missed while reading it. I loved it and will likely read it again, so it will be interesting to do so with your criticisms in mind. Thank you for this perspective!

    • Jenny says:

      I was thinking, too, that somehow after the flu it’s impossible to be a religious person of any type without being weird and creepy. Maybe an effect of being immune to the virus?

  6. Russell1200 says:

    Been a while since I read it. I am not sure I agree with your assessment in some regards.

    The items in the museum, are in a museum after all. While the art of Shakespeare lives on. The author seems to be both warning about our over attachment to today’s commercial culture, while at the same time admitting that it brings a lot of ease and comfort.

    Since the post apocalyptic portion is set during the calm-down period, when a certain amount of stability has returned, she is able to avoid (except elliptically) a lot of violence and mayhem.

    Peter Heller’s much grimmer novel, Dog Star, is an interesting counterpoint. Particularly as both novels cover a pandemic plague.

    • Jenny says:

      I heard Dog Star was grim! Good, though. I may put it on my list.

      I know the items in the museum are in a museum. The whole notion is that people are nostalgic for them; they’re supposed to be representative of what was lost (and, in some cases, what we’re trying to get back; see the ending.) It’s a pretty small selection, is all I’m saying.

  7. Stefanie says:

    I enjoyed the book but didn’t love it like so many people did. Your review is most excellent and points out some worldview flaws that I think are present in a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. Well done!

    • Jenny says:

      I think you’re right that those flaws are indeed present in a lot of that genre. Especially the ableism. I’d like to see some answers to that.

  8. I was verrrry bothered by the death of the only disabled character, but I’m afraid I let it be washed aside in favor of all the things I really loved about this book. Bad work, me! I’m sorry this one bored you — and surprised! I loved it, and my sister (who almost never reads fiction) found it so enthralling she stayed up all night finishing it the last time she came to visit me. But your points are super valid.

    • Jenny says:

      I wasn’t bored by the plot, I was bored by the worldview. The book itself was well-written and neatly structured — and I always like post-apocalypse; I like thinking about survival. But the tenth time I got to hear about someone’s perfect haircut or wonderful clothes or fabulous restaurant, I began to detect a pattern, is all.

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