Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

I’ve been particularly effusive about books recently (not so much on here as in life in general), and I’m not sure if this is because I’ve been reading things which warrant particular enthusiasm or if I’ve just been in an emphatic mood. Either way, here’s another one. I do have some criticisms about this book, so it won’t be an exclusively joy-fueled rant, but on the whole, I think this is one of the best books I’ve read for a very long time. I’m not going to start bandying around the phrases “nth favourite” or “top ten”, because I’m not certain how far this will tolerate re-reading (and for me, repeatability is the mark of a truly glorious book – I will never get sick of rereading Good Omens for instance), but it has a lot to recommend it outside of that.

The thing is… I don’t normally even like post-apocalyptic stuff. But this was sold to me as “post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare troupe” (from the friend who brought you “Romans with Pokémon”, who clearly knows how to persuade me to read things) and come on, who could resist that tagline?

And you know what? It gets better. They’re a post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare troupe with a Star Trek quotation painted on their wagon*. I mean, just… YES.

But like I say, I don’t normally like post-apocalyptic stuff. Especially not when the post-apocalypticness is the point (unlike, say, The Red Queen, where it was important and mentioned but also sort of irrelevant to the plot), rather than a neat little twist in the backstory or the setting. I often find them overdone, and far too pessimistic about the ability of humanity to cope without electricity or fuel. I mean, the Roman Empire survived pretty well with its centralised bureacracy etc. in an era far preceding all the things that get lamented about being lost (in this book, the internet, electricity, phones, motorised transport of any sort), but still had large-scale organisation and an actual system of government. And the population was smaller than now, so don’t give me the whole “yeah but loads of people died from plague”. That happened before and we seemed to do ok, long run**. And on the face of it, this book definitely falls into the category of “ugh, why?”. The action takes place, in part, 25 years post-apocalypse (pandemic, in this case), so it’s not even just the immediate chaos of the aftermath. Why is there no attempt at government? At long-distance communication? At any of the coping mechanisms of the pre-technological age for tying people together at distances beyond “that town just next over”? These questions and more would usually drive me potty.

And yet, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that ESJM has good answers (she doesn’t). It just… pales into insignificance against what the book actually does.

I’m going to go into what the book actually does do, and this may or may not fall into the category of spoilers, depending on your definitions. I personally don’t think knowing any of this would have ruined my reading experience, but *shrug*. You’ve been warned.

This book isn’t really about the drive of a particular narrative. Instead, it’s about how a group of people are connected across time, geography and the end of the world, and how they deal with important events in different ways. The book starts with the death of an actor before the beginning of the pandemic, and as we go through, we slowly realise that all the people we meet – going into the past, present and future relative to his death – are in some way connected to him, often via the eponymous Station Eleven (a comic book). We see how they interact with him and his memory, and with each other and how that affects how they cope with the end of the world. It’s a book about… people, really. And about feeling and changing and human connection. So I guess the apocalypse is irrelevant too… which explains why I get on with it.

This of course only works if the people are well-written. Spoilers: they so are.

I found it really difficult to dislike any of the characters who get used as viewpoints. They’re all flawed and complex and all the good things, but even then there’s normally one or two I find annoying. But none of them are. They’re all just… wonderful. I care about them all. ESJM has made it very very easy to care about them a heck of a lot. I found myself wanting there to be more book just because I wanted to carry on caring about them some more, which is not entirely my usual response to things. But she also has them raise questions and consider things, important things, without allowing it to get too pretentious and navel-gazey… there’s no cringe and awkward (for which I have a very low tolerance) and it just all flows.

One of these – and it’s raised explicitly but not fully developed, then kind of lurks in the background for the rest of the book if you’re looking for it/is easy to retcon in if you want to see it – is about the resonance of Shakespeare with the post-apocalyptic world, the connection between then and now and the timelessness of his work. How he got through a world of plague and death, and the world didn’t really end after all. I find it really interesting in a book where the result of the plague is a complete and utter desolation of everyone’s way of life that the author should choose to draw on this. Because although she is making a parallel, and one of her characters very much says that the reason they do Shakespeare is because of that parallel, it’s not an entirely valid one. Yes, there was plague in the 16th century. But the world carried on much as it was. Here, in ESJM’s world, that didn’t happen.

But then one of her characters also criticises the choice to focus on Shakespeare, wanting to make her own work, grounded in the reality of this post-apocalyptic world, so maybe ESJM is undermining the parallel herself too.

There’s a lot of thought too about how the characters interact with the world they’ve lost – from the oldest character we see, Clark, who was a middle-aged man when everything broke, down to the youngest, Kirsten, who was 8 at the time – and how they cope with what’s left now. For me, the loveliest and most emotional of these is Clark, who starts a museum of objects from before the epidemic, but I very much get the feeling that there’s something for everyone to connect to in one or another of the characters.

And I think that’s what made this book so lovely. It’s a rough collection of impressions and thoughts and personalities and events, strung together loosely but cleverly, so it’s not too disparate to feel disjointed, but also allows there to be something in there for whatever you want to find. I think if I read it again in two years, or five, or ten, my impressions of everything would be very different. I’d care about different people and be sad about different events.

The only real constant is a sort of bleakness – again, something I usually dislike – that pervades everything. And she makes it work. It’s nuanced bleakness, and even when you think you’re used to it, and can move past it, she switches to another time, or another person, or another theme, and it hits you all over again with its grim, empty sadnesses. This is sort of matched by the pacing, which is somewhat akin to Guy Gavriel Kay’s “everything just sort of happens, without any real drive towards a thing”. It drifts.

I don’t normally get very emotional about my books; I’m not a weepy person over media in general. But I did have a couple of moments of genuine “nope, take a breath, look away” where she really got to me. And that’s really great. Also horrible and ESJM how dare you make me feel feelings. But really great.

My only criticism, really, is the ending. I got there, then had to click back a couple of pages (Kindle, so I didn’t see it coming) and check I had actually got there and not just skipped by accident. It’s not exactly an abrupt finish, but because she doesn’t really have a driving narrative, it’s hard to find clues to indicate “and we’re finishing now”. So it came somewhat unexpectedly, and I wish it hadn’t. But then I’m not sure how an un-abrupt ending could really be achieved given what she’s doing.

As these things go, I am willing to live with a little unexpectedness in my endings for the sake of the glorious, emotional, beautiful thing that is Station Eleven.

 

*”Survival is insufficient” – Star Trek Voyager, S6 E2 Survival Instinct, spoken by Seven of Nine. Given that the episode is about people who ultimately choose to die soon living the lives they want rather than live a long time as drones in the Borg collective, there is a heck of a lot of resonance with the plot of the book as a whole, and especially Clark’s narrative about breaking free of the somnambulance of his corporate life. There’s also a sadness that isn’t really brought out much in the book (except for one small scene about 2/3 through) about the brevity of life post-apocalypse, which ties in rather wonderfully with a lot of what goes on but is never really explicitly drawn on.

I could probably massively overanalyse the choice of this quotation and how it picks up on all sorts of things in the story, because, y’know, Star Trek, but I suspect that’d end up as a massive 4000 word post devolving into capslock, shouting and hand-waving and I don’t really want to go there. Suffice it to say: good job, ESJM. Good quoting.

** More on that later, probably. Unless I forget. I have a lot to get through with this book

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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