Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, Station Eleven, arrived with much anticipation among fans of the dystopian genre. With as saturated as the dystopian genre (or Speculative Fiction) is at the moment, Station Eleven definitely stands apart from the rest, but not in the way you would expect.

The story begins with a death. A famous 51-year-old actor by the name of Arthur Leander drops dead on stage of a massive heart attack during a performance of Shakespeare's King Lear. The actor's tragic death is soon overshadowed when a pandemic called the Georgia Flu effectively wipes out about 99% of the world's population. The web of characters that this story focuses on are all connected through Arthur Leander. Mandel does an excellent job of dropping hints, piquing interest and weaving this web of interconnection which snaps into focus at the climax of the story.

The character perspectives change as the story unfolds, so parts of the story take place before the world is forever altered by the Georgia Flu. In these chapters we get to know Arthur, his upbringing, his struggle as an actor, and the turbulent relationships with his many wives, but mainly his first wife, Miranda Carroll. Miranda, hailing from the same tiny island as Arthur, is fresh out of an abusive relationship when Arthur sweeps her away to Los Angeles. L.A. life could not be any less suited to anyone as it is for Miranda, and she throws herself into her creative endeavors to escape the resultant unhappiness of her lonely marriage.

Miranda has been creating a comic book series by the name of Station Eleven, in which mankind's existence is threatened by aliens and the species survives on a space station run by Dr. Eleven where they live in a forever twilight. The parallel between Miranda's comic and the world that is marred by the Georgia Flu is a little poignant at times, however, I believe that Mandel was working toward a greater point about art.

In fact, a lot of this story is about the impact of art. In Year 20, after the Georgia Flu, we meet up with Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony. Kirsten was a child actor appearing in King Lear with Arthur Leander. Kirsten remembers Arthur clearly, and she collects gossip columns, news items, and anything else she can find about the actor. She clings to the copies of Station Eleven that Arthur gave to her when she was a child. Kirsten was definitely my favorite character. A killer knife throwing survivalist who lives and breathes Shakespeare...I mean, it's pretty bad ass. Kirsten doesn't remember much from her 8 years before the Georgia Flu, and she remembers nothing of the year right after the Flu in which she and her brother traveled the car and body logged roads out of Toronto.

Mandel skirts some of the gritty reality of a post-pandemic world in which civilization crumbles. Kirsten mentions that many people who were young when it happened have only vague memories due to trauma. We know that things were bad for the first couple of years, but we never get the impact of that fallen world. Kirsten's world is full of art and optimism.

The Traveling Symphony is made up of 30 actors and musicians who live by the Star Trek: Voyager motto of, "Survival is Insufficient." The Symphony travels a circuit around the Great Lakes and Canada where only small towns exist now, and they share with the survivors the art they have rescued from the fallen world. Survival is insufficient. There must be more to life than living hand-to-mouth. There must be experiences that extend beyond the self and the basic instincts of survival - that is what art is to the Symphony, a road to recovering the virtues of humanity.

As Kirsten's story line moves along, the Symphony is just reaching a town called St. Debra by the Water where they have returned to collect a pair of musicians who stayed in the town when their child was close to being delivered. However, the town has been overtaken by a zealot who calls himself The Prophet. And, like any cult-like prophet, he effectively takes under-aged brides. (Why is this always a thing?) The Symphony quickly moves on once they hear their friends fled the town and went to the Severn City Airport where the rumored Museum of Civilization exists. Of course, they inadvertently piss off The Prophet, and encounter a series of unfortunate events on the road.

The story is engaging. Though it darts back and forth in time and character perspectives, some chapters belonging solely to the narrator, there is a distinct and purposeful flow - everything connects. I did have some problems with the lack of the Georgia Flu's gritty aftermath, because in any post-apocalyptic setting you expect at least some of that darkness to still exist beyond some horny prophet. I also questioned Mandel's choice of character perspectives, because I didn't find them all as interesting as Kirsten. I was left wanting to know more about this intriguing and complex woman.

However, I recognize that all of the characters were integral to the plot; to the interconnecting web of events that extended through time. More than anything, I thought that the thread that tied all these characters together was the most successful thing about this story, and it illustrated a beautiful idea. The lives we touch, the art we create, the memories we leave - these can extend through time and influence people who live in a world unrecognizable to our own.

Image: Kirkus Reviews


  1. I really want to read this one because it sounds like a beautifully written and speculative novel! Right up my street. Thanks for the review :)

    Check out my review:

  2. Thanks Olivia! It's a great read. Let me know what you think when you finish it. I just subscribed to your blog :)