Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Judge

Truth. Order. Moderation.
Staff member
Nov 10, 2008
nearly the New Forest
Perhaps not the best book to read this year, since some of its setting deals with the aftermath of a deadly flu-like pandemic which has killed as much as 99% of the world's population. However, this Arthur C. Clarke Award winner is more than a simple post-apocalyptic novel.

The central figure of the book, though not the main protagonist, is the Hollywood actor Arthur Leander, who dies on stage of a heart attack while playing King Lear in Toronto on the same night the virus arrives in North America. The story flits back and forth in time along his life and that of various people who knew and interacted with him -- his best friend, Clark; his first wife, Miranda; Jeevan, a would-be medic who rushes on stage to try and resuscitate Arthur; a child, Kristen, who plays one of Lear’s daughters in a kind of memory-dream prologue of the play; and Tyler, Arthur's only child by his second wife.

Some of these survive, including Kirsten, who becomes a leading member of The Travelling Symphony, an acting and orchestral troupe which tours among the tiny settlements which have grown up in the Great Lakes area of North America in the twenty years since the pandemic, bringing music and Shakespeare to the people. In fact, much the same kind of touring group to which Shakespeare himself would have belonged when the plague shut the London theatres. The troupe's motto -- and the theme of the book -- is a line from Star Trek Voyager: "Survival is insufficient".

The plot, what there is of it, revolves around a self-styled prophet who has effectively taken over a settlement with the usual accoutrements -- a plethora of weapons, a cohort of inadequates who believe themselves to have been saved because they're special, and the girls and young women whom he takes to wife regardless of consent or age. Two members of the troupe who had stayed behind in the settlement a couple of years before are no longer there, and the TS, recognising the danger the prophet poses to them all, quickly follow their escape path, heading for a rumoured town -- and Museum of Civilization -- at a former airport. As might be expected, getting there isn't as simple as they hoped.

The plot, though, is of less importance than the connections between the characters, and in particular two graphic novels Miranda creates called Dr. Eleven, copies of which she gives to Arthur some weeks before his death and which he then gives to Kirsten and Tyler, with ramifications for both. The setting of the two novels is a space station -- Station Eleven -- formed to be a simulacrum of a planet but which, after Earth has been taken over by aliens, has been damaged so it no longer has daylight. Part of its population, those who live in the undersea, want to force a return to Earth despite the risks as they're sick of living in twilight and darkness, and the eponymous Dr. Eleven has to lead the station after his predecessor is murdered. The novels and their setting are repeatedly invoked, both as they're written/drawn by Miranda in the past, using places in her life with Arthur as backdrops, and as they're read by others and repeatedly re-read by Kirsten, and they act as both counterpoint and commentary on the characters and how people are torn between continuing in a new life without reference to the past on the one hand and needing to return to the old world on the other.

Time blurs as the story is told, with jumps back and forth between the various periods of the book, with the shifting use of past and present tense, and with sentences such as "He saw [her] across the stage again -- already in the final week of her life, the Georgia Flu so close now --" but any confusions as to when and where are few and far between. The writing is limpid, with a poetic feel, and for the most part characterisation is strong. The main criticism I have of the novel is that for me the structure is too neat, with all the meetings and connections between the characters -- to my mind the story has been imposed on the characters, instead of arising from the characters.

But that's a minor quibble for an excellent read that deals with regret and ambition, hopes and dreams, memory and the wish to be remembered, and which reminds us of the importance of culture in our lives, and of Shakespeare most especially, even when there isn't a pandemic threatening us all.
Thanks for the review! Funnily enough I just bought this one recently and it will be up for reading sometime in the next month or two! :D
Nice review. The book certainly sounds interesting and I do need to read more SF written by Female authors.
I look forward to hearing what you think of it, Vertigo -- dare I hope it might be one of the few novels we agree upon?! :p

Rodders, it's one of those books where people might argue whether it qualifies as SF. For those who insist SF must be based or be predominantly about scientific ideas/principles it's definitely not-SF -- the only vaguely sciencey stuff is the flu itself, but there's no discussion of why or how it's so deadly, nor where it's come from, it just is.

Actually, the novel reminded me of Margaret Atwood's work and Hag-Seed in particular, no doubt because of the Shakespearean allusions and the relevance of the play/graphic novel to the action and characters.
...dare I hope it might be one of the few novels we agree upon?!
And so it turns out to have been! :D

The world is hit with a SARS derived flu epidemic which kills 90% of the population; in 2020 this makes for a slightly uncomfortable premise but actually, despite being the foundation for the whole story, the pandemic itself it not terribly important. In this way Station Eleven is a little bit like McCarthy’s The Road where the reader never even discovers the cause of the collapse but Station Eleven is much more optimistic than that rather grim book.

The book begins as a successful but unhappy actor dies on stage of a heart attack whilst playing King Lear in Canada. Meanwhile the flu pandemic is just getting started in North America. Thereafter the story flits back and forth between pre and post pandemic times following the stories of an assorted group of characters leading up to, and extending out from, this moment. The constant shifts in timeline are always well signalled and never confusing and, indeed, serve to leaven the post-apocalyptic depression and the, at times, claustrophobically intimate and unflinching examination of pre-pandemic life, values and relationships.

Here I found stylistic similarities with Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as it tells the stories of a number of different people over a period of maybe sixty years spanning the pandemic itself. Each of these stories have sometimes obvious and sometimes more subtle interactions with each other that weave together to present a satisfying whole that, almost without the reader realising it, examines issues of friendship, love, loyalty, hope, despair and obsession. Throughout Mandel maintains a light touch tempering those parts set in the bleak post-apocalyptic world with the stories leading up to it.

A surprisingly accessible and literary piece of pre- and post-apocalyptic fiction that I found very satisfying.

4.5/5 stars
I'm glad you enjoyed it -- it's a rare novel that can please us both!
I confess I was very wary about the subject matter from the blurb, but in reality the obvious subjects - like pandemic, post-apocalyptic, theatre etc. were really just the staging for cleverly woven tapestry of stories. A bit Canterbury Tales -ish in a way.

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