Friday, October 9, 2015

Review - Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on The Newtown Review of Books (http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au)

Station Eleven is a book that will defy your expectations. It may be set on an Earth where 99 per cent of the population has been killed by a virulent influenza, but it doesn’t focus on the inexorable dissolution of the human spirit, or the death of kindness in hard times. It’s not something you need to gird your emotional loins in order to read. It’s not The Road. Ultimately it’s a book about finding peace, and if you approach it with an open heart, you will be rewarded.

The Station Eleven of the title is a graphic novel created by Miranda Carroll, one of the ex-wives of Arthur Leander, a famous actor whose death on stage during a performance of King Lear opens the novel and acts as a linchpin for the story as it projects backward to look at his successes, his marriages, his failures and regrets, and forward past the end of civilisation. In Miranda’s story, Station Eleven is a space station that fled Earth during an alien attack and Dr Eleven is its captain:

The station’s artificial sky was damaged in the war, however, so on Station Eleven’s surface it is always twilight or night. There was also damage to a number of vital systems involving Station Eleven’s ocean levels, and the only land remaining is a series of islands that once were mountaintops.

There has been a schism. There are people who, after fifteen years of perpetual twilight, long only to go home, to return to Earth and beg for amnesty, to take their chances under alien rule. They live in the Undersea, an interlinked network of vast fallout shelters under Station Eleven’s oceans. There are three hundred of them now. In the scene Miranda’s presently sketching, Dr Eleven is on a boat with his mentor Captain Lonagan.

Dr Eleven: These are perilous waters. We’re passing over an Undersea gate.

Captain Lonagan: You should try to understand them. (The next panel is a close-up of his face.) All they want is to see the sunlight again. Can you blame them?


Past the worst of the plague and 20 years after Leander’s death, a group of players who call themselves the ‘Travelling Orchestra’ move from small town to small town putting on concerts and Shakespeare plays.

Rather than the dog-eat-dog existence you might expect from watching shows like The Walking Dead, here is a post-apocalyptic world that allows for beauty and art because, as one of the Orchestra’s wagons proclaims on its canvas side, ‘Survival is Insufficient’. It’s a comforting thought, but Station Eleven is not a ‘cosy apocalypse’ either. The landscape is still dangerous, and each of the Orchestra’s members has lived through terrible times and some have done terrible things to survive. Kirsten, who was a child actor in the same production of Lear, can’t remember the year after she fled from plague-affected Toronto and survived hand-to-mouth with her brother, and she considers that a blessing.

One town the Orchestra visits is now under control of a ‘prophet’ who has some decidedly uncivilised ideas, and the group leaves quickly, looking to join up with other members who had stopped at the town on their last trip in order to have a baby, and who now are worryingly missing. But due to actions beyond their control, the Orchestra is pursued by the Prophet’s men, who start to pick them off under cover of night as they try to flee to the relative safety of the Museum of Civilisation, which is run by Clark, a friend of the dead Leander:

Towards the end of his second decade in the airport, Clark was thinking about how lucky he’d been. Not just the mere fact of survival, which was of course remarkable in and of itself, but to have seen one world end and another begin. And not just to have seen the remembered splendours of the former world, the space shuttles and the electrical grid and amplified guitars, the computer that could be held in the palm of a hand and the high-speed trains between cities, but to have lived among those wonders for so long. To have dwelt in that spectacular world for fifty-one years of his life. Sometimes he lay awake in Concourse B of the Severn City Airport and thought, ‘I was there,’ and the thought pierced him through with an admixture of sadness and exhilaration.


The parallels between the yearnings of the people of the Undersea and Clark’s feelings about the Museum are clear: you can’t go home. All you can do is choose how you will live in whatever place you find yourself.

Station Eleven is incredibly well written and well-structured. There’s action and dramatic tension but also space for quiet moments of reflection, all of which produces a compelling meditation on how people react to the apocalypse: those who are stuck in the past and wish to return to it, those who are broken by it and those who see it not as an end, but a new beginning, who choose not to lose their humanity. The emotional effect of the novel reminded me very much of James Bradley’s Clade, another novel with a grim mid- and post-apocalyptic setting, but one which also admits some hope, some lightness, which I think is a very important element to hold on to.

One of the functions of speculative fiction is to project the possible and let it play out within the framework of story in an almost instructive way. ‘Here,’ it says, ‘is what things may be like. Look and learn.’ Unrelentingly grim apocalyptic stories offer little in the way of instruction other than convincing us that when the end comes through climate change, SARS, war or unavoidable meteor impact, life will be horrible, brutish and short. But books like Clade and Station Eleven admit that humans are not inherently evil and if things do go bad, holding on to our humanity is not a weakness, it’s a strength.

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