by Emily St. John Mandel
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 23, 2020
Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
It is close to six years since this was published, and almost five since I bought it for Kindle on sale. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to it, and I'm wishing I had not waited. Mandel's previous novels are within the literary fiction market, although they might also be considered thrillers. Station Eleven bridges the gap between literary and science fiction, whether or not she intended it to be such. It was nominated for the National Book Award, as well as several others devoted to SF; the John W. Campbell Memorial, British Fantasy, Locus, and Sunburst, and it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. If it had been nominated for a Hugo I would have read it then, since I did vote that year. I try to stay spoiler-free on books beyond the general premise, although I had seen comments critical of the flashback sequences, with which I disagree.
The story starts just before the outbreak of a global pandemic, then jumps twenty years into the future. The opening scenes are at a theater in Toronto during a production of King Lear, the lead played by a popular film star. One of the director's changes has three young girls in non-speaking parts, supposedly a flashback to the childhood of Lear's daughters, then later they appear as hallucinations. One of the girls is eight-year-old Kirsten Raymonde, of whom the star, Arthur Leander, is protective, since she reminds him he has a son the same age, one who lives in Israel with his mother, Arthur's second ex-wife. During the play Arthur collapses, dying of what is believed to be a heart attack. It is possible he had been infected with the "Georgia Flu" (the former Soviet republic, not the US state), since later reports have almost everyone else in the production dying within a week. But not Kirsten, and not Jeevan Chaudhary, a fan from the audience who was in training as a paramedic. They both survive through the pandemic, and at least twenty years more, apparently immune to the virus. Jeevan and Kirsten later walk out of a devastated Toronto, but separately, Jeevan alone, Kirsten with her older brother.
Twenty years hence, Kirsten is a member of The Traveling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors. They travel a circuit around the Great Lakes region, performing music one night, a play the next. Both King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream are in their repertoire, with Kirsten portraying Titania in the latter. The major cities mentioned are real, Toronto, New York, Paris, but small towns the troupe visits are fictional. One of them is St. Deborah by the Water, Michigan, where two years previously they had left the pregnant Charlie and her husband Jeremy. This time through they can't find the couple or anyone who knows where they might be, but they're not fooled by grave markers bearing their names since they are clearly not above a grave. On the way out of town, a sentry tells them those markers are for people who left the Prophet, who now considers them as good as dead. Clues lead Kirsten to suspect they went to the Museum of Civilization, which is supposedly inside the abandoned Severn City Airport (also fictional).
I'm not sure if those who criticized the flashbacks just don't like that type of narrative, or if their complaints were more about their random nature. Earlier scenes of Arthur Leander are prompted by news clippings and paparazzi photographs, some of which Kirsten already had, others she continued to collect whenever she found them. Almost all of those flashbacks are years before the pandemic. In one of them we learn the meaning behind the novel's title. Station Eleven is a graphic novel created by Arthur's first wife, Miranda Carroll. It was never published, and only two issues had been completed, Miranda giving Arthur two copies of each just a couple of weeks before his death. He gave one set to his son Tyler, the other to Kirsten, but she has little memory of that time, and it's not until later she realizes who created the comic. Other flashbacks are of Jeevan, who had been a paparazzi around the time Miranda and Arthur's marriage broke up, later trying to reinvent himself as an entertainment reporter, before deciding to be a paramedic. A close friend of Arthur's, Clark Thompson, is also featured from the past. He survived, later creating the Museaum of Civilization after being stranded at the airport while on route to Toronto for Arthur's funeral. Also on that flight were Arthur's ex-wife Elizabeth and his son Tyler.
The museum consisted of artifacts Clark collected; cell phones, laptops, credit cards, car keys, and many other objects without purpose in the new reality. Does it matter that the flashbacks don't give us information about the pandemic? In my opinion, no. They're reflective of the serendipitous nature of life, how people float into and out of your sphere, how their friendship, or the ending of relationships, propel you to certain decisions, never to be reconciled. More than once I thought of the convoluted flashbacks in the Lost TV series, which showed interactions with people who had, or would later have, contact with another of the stranded passengers. Jeevan had a brief conversation with Kirsten that first night, but they never met again, his journey took him in a different direction. His paramedic training did prove useful, assisting a doctor, later taking over those duties in his community. He did have a brief contact with the Prophet, whom Kirsten and Clark also met, but in Clark's case it was years before that person became the Prophet.
The only thing I can criticize is it should have been longer, or a sequel written already. I'd like to know more about the long, lonely years from when Kirsten's brother died to where we see her at the end. The same for Jeevan, although I think Clark's story was covered well. One thing he showed Kirsten from the airport's control tower begs for resolution. Somewhere to the south a community has resurrected electricity. That's where she's headed next. We get several intense scenes of fighting, general trauma, and deaths, but why not how Kirsten became so proficient with knives, and how she earned her tattoos? More on the Prophet's rise would have been interesting too. It's probably best we don't know that much about the virus, although it is apparent there have been either mutations or other viruses cropping up over the years. No, the best thing about post-apocalyptic stories is how the characters cope. Some are honorable even though they've had to do bad things to survive, others take the easier path of dominating the weak, or else they just give up. I do enjoy reading about them, I just hope I never have to live a similar scenario.
Correction: I have another complaint. I wish Miranda had survived so she could have completed her graphic novel, for which she had devoted more time than any job she ever had. The author has said she is the character she most closely identified with. Station Eleven is a space station as big as a small moon, which Dr. Eleven has repurposed as a space ship, taking it through a wormhole to escape aliens who had invaded Earth, although he desperately wants to return and exact revenge. A good metaphor for the story, since the characters are all looking for that path back to the life they knew before, as bleak as the prospects for that are.
We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, and ReAnimusPress.