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BOOK REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fascinating character study set twenty years after the apocalypse.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A band of musicians and actors travel the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Great Lakes region twenty years after a devastating virus has killed off 99% of the world’s population.

PROS: Fascinating character studies; the way the lives of the characters weave together; the subtle hints that are dropped along the way that, by book’s end, all fall into place.
CONS: Seasoned science fiction fans looking for a post-apocalyptic story may be put of by the mainstream feel of the novel.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent story that serves as a great example of accessible science fiction with an engaging story.

As a reader of science fiction, it may be tempting to pigeonhole Station Eleven as a post-apocalyptic novel and leave it at that. But that would be a mistake for two reasons. First, as a straight-up post-apocalyptic novel, it leaves a little something to be desired. It’s not bad, per se, it’s just that it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before in greater depth and with more action. (And even that statement depends on your own personal prior reading experience.) Secondly, it undermines what the book is truly about, and that is: the lives we lead and the relationships we form. In that respect, Station Eleven can easily be seen as a novel that can be considered both science fiction and mainstream at the same time. But much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it’s not the apocalypse that is the draw of Station Eleven, it’s almost something that’s beside the point.

So what is the point? Station Eleven is a novel about a small group of people and what happens to them when a new strain of the flu eradicates 99% of the world’s population in the span of a few weeks. The main characters include:

  • Arthur Leander – a popular, aging actor who, at the start of the novel, dies onstage from heart failure during a production of King Lear, which is coincidentally the same night that a super-flu starts to become a serious problem.
  • Jeevan Chaudhary – a man searching for the right profession, who is present at the time of Arthur’s death.
  • Kirsten Raymonde – a young girl with a small role in Arthur’s play. Years later, she is part of a traveling band known as The Traveling Symphony, a band of performers who travel the sparsely-populated countryside of the Great Lakes region entertaining where they can because — as they appropriated from an episode of Star Trek — survival is not enough.
  • Miranda – Arthur’s first wife; an artist who created the science fiction comic book titled “Station Eleven”, about a space station that escapes the confines of a doomed Earth.
  • Clark Thompson – Arthur’s friend who takes care of notifying Arthur’s wives when he passes away during those final weeks of civilization.

There are other characters we meet along the way, although most of them are outside the main focus of the story. (Or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a character study?) In fact, some of them don’t even get names, instead being referred to by their role in the Symphony (i.e. “third violin”). The main characters are related in some way to Arthur, either by association or marriage. You might think that, twenty years on, all of these characters will somehow meet up at some narrative junction, but that’s not always the case. Some don’t even survive. In Jeevan’s case, he has no interaction with these characters after the opening chapter, in which he unsuccessfully attempts to resuscitate Arthur and consoles a young Kirsten. That doesn’t make his particular story any less interesting. Instead, as society deteriorates, and Jeevan contemplates his current romantic relationship and decides to hole up with his disabled brother, we get a sense of the hopelessness of mankind’s future.

The narrative of Station Eleven is non-linear; it frequently jumps forward and backward in time and between characters to paint the overall picture of their lives. To her credit, the author successfully manages to make these jumps easy to follow because the characters are very distinct and the writing is very clear. What’s fascinating here is that a reader really comes to know these characters and what they’ve gone through. As the story progresses and we come to learn about them, we feel the hardships they endure in the new world order — the fight for food, the lack of hope, the menace of a self-described Prophet — and we thus become invested in their lives. For that reason, Station Eleven is a page-turner and one that feels not just worthwhile, but rewarding.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // December 29, 2014 at 9:06 am //

    It’s a book that has slowly impinged on my consciousness. I’m glad you like this more than the Quantum Thief.

  2. Dino Mascolo // December 29, 2014 at 1:09 pm //

    I just finished listening to the audio version of this. Your feelings about the book mirrored mine almost exactly. Especially the “this has been done before” thoughts. Halfway through I was bored with Arthur’s story and didn’t understand the point of it. Then I started to really enjoy the last few hours. My favorite character turned out to be Clark, which I didn’t see coming.

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