Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenWhere Station Eleven is most successful is in its emotional intricacies; it “gets” people in a way that Science Fiction sadly rarely does. It cuts deep in its examinations of how relationships can change over a lifetime, softening and hardening, swinging from one extreme of feeling to another and back again. It’s moving, elegantly written if not particularly stylised, and deftly handles the inconsistent and complex nature of human emotions. I was also struck by the way it uses its post-apocalyptic setting to question and challenge where our own (pre-apocalyptic?) society finds value.

Where Station Eleven is least successful, however, is in its surface elements and the way it performs its genre. The novel falls short in its descriptions and its worldbuilding, failing to evoke that sense of wonder-at-emptiness that’s characteristic of the best post-apocalyptic fiction. The second half of the novel hinges on some clichéd and predictable drivel about a self-styled “Prophet” of the wastes: a man obsessed with the Book of Revelations who interprets the end of society as a Biblical cleansing of the sinful, akin to Noah’s flood or whatever. There’s a lot to recommend about Station Eleven, and I enjoyed it immensely, it’s just a shame that the strength of its subtexts and characterisation isn’t reflected in its setting or plot.

The principal narrative follows the ‘Travelling Symphony’, an itinerant theatre troupe that specialises in performances of Shakespeare, and which travels from settlement to settlement in the decades following the “Georgian Flu”, a bird-flu-esque pandemic that’s killed 99.9% of the world’s population. The book has a non-linear narrative and tracks multiple characters through both pre- and post-apocalyptic North America. In fact, Station Eleven is a structural marvel, simultaneously juggling several timelines and character arcs but never becoming confusing or pretentious. The reasons for this back-and-forth between past and present are, supposedly, many fold: from the standard post-apoc fare of hammering home what’s been lost, to the stylistic function of building tension. There’s also a lot of satisfying and impressive imagery to be found in the dissonance that comes from the manic, workaday, pre-apocalyptic world rubbing against the empty, slow, quiet and timeless post-crisis America. This dissonance is expressed most keenly in the novel’s preoccupation with aeronautical imagery: the presence-then-absence of planes from the sky.  Alastair Reynolds has written about this more eloquently than I ever could, so I direct you to his own review.

The nominal main character is Katniss…er… I mean Kirsten, a knife-wielding actress of the ‘Travelling Symphony’ who was just a child when society collapsed. She’s also the least interesting character, whose arc involves being separated from the Symphony and trying to find it again, while occasionally stopping to wonder what the world was like “before”, which is a fairly run-of-the-mill genre trapping, and pretty dull.

Most fascinating are Arthur and his ex-wife Miranda, whose heart-rending story occurs before the onset of the world-ending super plague. What shines through is the complexity of their relationship, not just the youthful affair and eventual separation, but the fact that, years after their divorce, they’re unable to extricate themselves from one another’s lives. Their struggle for happiness – with and without each other – is made all the more poignant by the novel’s dramatic irony and sense of impending doom: if only they knew, as the reader does, how little time they have left.

It’s frustrating, however, that the novel doesn’t capitalize on its interest in Shakespeare. In recent years the post-apocalyptic novel has developed a concern for what I call ‘textual salvage’, whereby the trendy salvagepunk aspects of the genre (scrap fetish and bric-a-brac technology etc) are replaced with salvage of a different kind: that of literary history and intertextuality. Station Eleven does this in a very basic way (its characters want to preserve Shakespeare), but for me this doesn’t go far enough. The best examples of what I’m talking about use textual salvage to completely reconfigure society, affecting their texts both on the level of world building *and* on the level of subtext (by engaging with the post-modern problem that everything has been done already, and all we’re left with now is endless reproduction and reconfiguration). My interest was piqued when I read the book’s blurb: the apocalypse combined with Shakespeare, but I’ve just seen this sort of thing done much, much better elsewhere; notably China Miéville’s Railsea in which the post-apoc society is reordered as a collective performance of Moby Dick, and in Marly Youman’s Thaliad, which tells it’s tale through the filter of salvaged Classical poetry, thus making-strange both the post-apocalyptic world of the novel and our own pre-crisis society.

Station Eleven, then, is at its best when it’s not being a Science Fiction novel. The pre-plague chapters outshine the others by orders of magnitude. They’re so good, so intricate and delicate and downright human as to make the whole experience worthwhile anyway. I mean, the apocalypse stuff isn’t a complete waste (c.f. the aforementioned aeroplane imagery and wonderful use of dramatic irony), but it’s not original in any way. As a nominee for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award, it’s troubling that the Science Fictional elements are this novel’s weakest aspects, but nevertheless, this remains a beautiful, well-observed, well-written novel about what it is to be human. If, however, you’re looking for a great after-the-plague Science Fiction novel, read Earth Abides instead.

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8 responses to “Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

  1. “It’s frustrating, however, that the novel doesn’t capitalize on its interest in Shakespeare.”

    “fairly run-of-the-mill genre trapping, and pretty dull.”

    “Station Eleven, then, is at its best when it’s not being a Science Fiction novel.”

    Nailed it. Exactly my problems with the novel. I don’t get what all the fuss is about. Sure, it’s literary in the small sense, but it’s not very big L Literary for a book that hinges on Shakespeare. I was expecting more, but I got the fine arts version of The Stand, instead.

    “Katniss…er… I mean Kirsten” lol

    Great review! I’m excited to discover your blog!

    • Many thanks. 🙂

      Yeah, I try not to be one of those SF critics who’s like “Urr, mainstream writers shouldn’t even try Science Fiction because they don’t know!”, but this book is, unfortunately, a perfect example of that.

      Love “The fine arts version of The Stand” 🙂 (a book I’ve had un-read on my desk for aaaages, really should get around to it).

      I really dig your blog too! HOW HAVE I NOT HEARD OF YOU BEFORE NOW?!

      Thanks for reading/commenting. Much appreciated.
      Tom.

      • Don’t feel too pressured to read The Stand. I only read it because it was back before I learned that SF could do better. Although it does STAND as a referential staple of the post-apoc dystopia subgenre. (And I really did love the Dark Tower series and I’m not ashamed to admit it. YesIAmNoI’mNot.)

        You haven’t heard of me because I’m small fries and relatively new. I guess our bloggy circles just haven’t intersected until just now. So yay for that, because you do good words about the bookses, man.

  2. Earth Abides does get that sense of an empty world better than anything else I know. It’s also good in its portrayal of ordinary people surviving, ones without amazing skills, and what that means too for their chances of rebuilding.

    This always sounded a little pat to me, and still does. Great review though as ever.

    • Thanks Max.

      This book does that weird thing of combining lit-fic stylistic proclivities, with some of the more OTT aspects of genre fiction (the main girl Kirsten has ridiculous knife-throwing ninja-like abilities), and while I’d usually get excited about such a convergence, something about it just doesn’t work here. The lit fic bits and the SF bits seem really separate from one another.

      And yes, Earth Abides is great. It’s turning into one of the novels that haunts me long after I finished it.

  3. Pingback: Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel | Savidge Reads

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