Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Publish: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Awards Nominated: Derleth & Campbell Memorial Awards
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award
“Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.” ~Amazon.com
I’d never read anything by Emily St. John Mandel before, and picked this one up due to the attention it received in SFF awards (as well as a strong recommendation from George R.R. Martin).
I put off reading this novel for quite some time, because I was afraid it would be terribly depressing. After all, it is about mass death, the collapse of civilization, and the survivors who live in the wreckage. Though the material was extremely sad, I liked that the tone felt more contemplative and hopeful than I had expected. Rather than a story about an inevitable end, it was a story of death and rebirth. The end of our civilization was something to be grieved and remembered, but it was not the end of everything. It was important for the survivors to remember the past, but not to let it constrain how their world would develop in the future. Just after the flu pandemic, people could only struggle to meet their basic needs. As time passed, those remaining began to gather into communities. Twenty years later, the success of the Traveling Symphony shows that mere survival is no longer sufficient, and that people are beginning to once again long for art and music. Though the new world is dangerous, and though the pre-flu world will never return, the existence of Kirsten’s group gives me the sense that there is still hope for the future.
The novel’s atmosphere is enhanced by the fictional unpublished “Dr. Eleven” comics created by Arthur Leander’s ex-wife. “Dr. Eleven” ties characters together in unexpected ways, and is a kind of nexus for connecting several different storylines. The characters in the comic are forced to build a new life in a space station, though many of them still long for the now-forbidden Earth. The descriptions of the comic, as well as the work that was put into its creation, were hauntingly beautiful. I found myself wondering if someone might actually create the fictional work someday, because I would love to actually see the artwork. In any case, I enjoyed reading about the comic, and I liked the way it reflected the emotion of the story.
The story itself jumps back and forth in time, with scenes before, during, and twenty years after the pandemic. The most continuous storyline is the one involving Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony, with difficulties they encounter in the new world. Other scenes involve the fate of a handful of characters, all loosely connected by the actor Arthur Leander and the “Dr. Eleven” comics. There was not a whole lot of time to become invested in each character, and some of their stories seemed to just trail off. I was less interested in the pre-pandemic sections, which mostly followed Leander’s celebrity love life. In the post-pandemic sections, I thought Kirsten’s amnesia and impressive knife-throwing skills felt a little clichéd, but I did enjoy her as a heroine through which to observe the slow growth of a new civilization. For me, rather than in plot and characters, the strength of the novel was in the poetic and atmospheric depiction of the death and rebirth of human civilization.
My Rating: 3.5 /5
Station Eleven is the story of a worldwide civilizational collapse, but it thankfully avoids being relentlessly depressing or nihilistic. Instead, it is a quiet, thoughtful book showing the death of one world and the birth of another. The handful of characters are all connected through the actor Arthur Leander and through his ex-wife’s haunting comic, “Dr. Eleven”. Kirsten’s storyline twenty years after the pandemic has the most conventional plot, but it is interspersed with scenes from other characters that take place before and during the collapse. I had a hard time getting emotionally invested in the characters, but I really enjoyed the writing and the emotional tone of the story. Also, “Dr. Eleven” is fictional, but it looks like St. John Mandel may write a script for the comics. It would be interesting to see if the pictures match what I imagined while reading Station Eleven!