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Saturday, April 11, 2020

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I thought that Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was a fantastic book. This piece of plague - fiction was gripping, had complex and interesting characters, philosophical musings and themes. The novel was first published in 2014. It has been very popular since. Obviously, a lot of folks are comparing the plot of this book to the current situation to the covid - 19 situation, a comparison that I think might be overblown. 

The premise of the book is that a devesting contagion, known as The Georgia Flu, wipes out all but 1% of humanity. At the book’s center is Arthur Leander. Arthur is a famous actor who dies on stage of a heart attack while preforming King Lear, just before the flu hits. Every major character in the narrative is somehow connected to Arthur.  The novel takes place in various time periods both before and after the epidemic. 

After the plague civilization collapses and people congregate in small settlements, living with almost no technology. Eventually even internal combustion motors become inoperable as the remaining gasoline becomes unstable. After the collapse most of the story occurs around the Great Lakes Region of Canada and the United States.  The most important of several plot threads centers upon The Traveling Symphony, a classical music and Shakespearian theater group that moves between the settlements putting on performances. 

Kirsten Raymonde, who as a little girl witnessed Arthur’s death, is now a Shakespearian actor with The Symphony. Clark Thompson is Arthur’s best friend. After the plague he helps to establish a civilized community in an what used to be an airport. Miranda Carroll is Arthur’s first wife. Before the plague, she created a comic book, called Station Eleven about a gigantic future space station and its commander, that serves as an inspiration for Kirsten and other members of The Symphony. Jeevan Chaudhary is an ex - paparazzi and a paramedic who attempted to save Author when he collapses on stage. Jeevan survives the flu while holed up in an apartment and later becomes a doctor in post collapsed America. Tyler Leander is Arthur’s son. He is a child when the plague hits. He grows up to be a Jim Jones - like cult leader who accomplishes his goals through violence, rape and murder and eventually comes after The Traveling Symphony. There are many other characters and plot threads that take place before and after the outbreak. 

This book is something of a jigsaw puzzle. The plot, characters and certain symbolic objects fit together as the novel progresses. What I mean is that the narrative frequently jumps between various times and places. A chunk of the narrative takes place fifteen years before the virus strikes. Another takes place just when the plague hits and in the ensuing months. Still another takes place fifteen years after the outbreak. What is more or less the main story, takes place twenty years after the initial outbreak. There are many plot threads and characters interweaving through it all. Mandel handles all this expertly as it never becomes confusing and the connections between people and objects become apparent as the story progresses. For instance, the tale of Miranda’s creation of the Station Eleven comic slowly unfolds throughout the book. Interspaced with this is references to the same comic that take place in a future time period. 

There are a few overriding points throughout the book. The characters philosophize a lot about life, science, art, and all sorts of other themes. A basic  idea seems to be that that certain things in the post - flu world are worth supporting and these things are what makes the world better. Those elements are decent, empathetic and community orientated behavior, reason and science, as well as art. After the collapse the world became violent, unjust and brutal. But things seem to be slowly getting better because of these basic, positive values. There is an eventual confrontation between Kirsten and other members of the Symphony and the prophet, but it is not a great climatic battle. Instead, the characters who hang on to a basic form of morality, build communities, and try to preserve art and science over the course of years are the heroes of the story. 

The novel includes a lot of literary and philosophical references including a fair amount of Shakespeare. There are also many references to various Star Trek television series. In fact, the motto of the traveling orchestra is “survival is insufficient” a phrase used in a Star Trek Voyager episode. Mandel cannot seem to help to delve into all kind of subjects so there is also an aesthetic discussion about the lower art of Star Trek verses the higher art of Shakespeare. Star Trek’s common themes of art, reason, decency and humanity triumphing over chaos are integrated into this novel’s plot so this all makes sense. The characters also tend to philosophize a lot in a middle brow way that also reminds me a lot of the philosophizing that goes on in Star Trek episodes. Mandel is obviously a fan. 

Other plague books that I have read over the years come to mind when thinking about this novel. Though Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain was highly scientific, the plague in that novel did not reach apocalyptic proportions. Though I liked it Stephen King’s The Stand, that book did not try to be realistic. Instead it was a mix of horror and fantasy that was ultimately turned into a parable of good versus evil. Frank Herbert’s The White Plague was realistic and still is the most horrifying plague  - fiction that I have read. Folks often mention Albert Camus’s The Plague, however, that book did not involve science fiction or fantasy elements and really belongs in a different class of books. Camus’s novel aside, Station Eleven was the best science fiction plague book that I have read to date. 

This novel was most similar to King’s book as both novels took the reader through the plague itself and then into the post - plague worlds. I found Mandel’s vision here mostly realistic, particularly the post - plague part. Her vision of the plague and the world that is left behind seems mostly plausible, especially as compared with King’s more fanciful book. I could nitpick about some details in this novel. For instance, I think that anything that killed as fast as The Georgia Flu would not spread so fast as it would kill and disable people before they could spread it. It is also not clear whether the survivors were just immune to the disease or just managed not to get the disease. 

Mandel’s prose style is excellent. She manages to mix poetic descriptions with insightful and sometimes philosophical commentary. Below she is painting a picture of how life has changed after the collapse. In doing so she seems to have something to say about the world as it is, in this case, social media related,

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.

The characters are also well crafted and nuanced. Arthur is complex. He is not always likable. He is self - centered and does not always treat those around him as he should. However, he also has redeeming qualities. He is self - aware and comes to recognize that he must do better. Kirsten is a very capable and intelligent person who wrestles with the trauma that she has encountered and the things that she has had to do in the in this post - apocalyptic world. She also seems to represent optimism. There are additional characters who are also well drawn. 

Of course, with the coronavirus outbreak, this book is timely, at least in some ways. My blog posts are delayed so I actually started reading this relatively early when the real virus was just beginning to be a concern in many countries. These early news reports may have prompted me to finally read this but I have been meaning to give this a try for a long time. With that, as serious as coronavirus is, I think that parallels to this book are really limited. The wiping out of most of humanity is not what is happening now. Any points that Mandel is trying to convey here tend to be universal, and not really related to diseases or epidemics. 

For all the above reasons I thought that this book was excellent. It has interesting characters, a page turning plot, and thought provoking themes. For those who like this sort of book, I highly recommend this novel. It deserves its popularity.

47 comments:

CyberKitten said...

I think I'm becoming the only person I know who hasn't read this - yet... [grin]

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Cyberkitten - I think a lot of people have not read this. I think that you would like this, especially all the science fiction references.

mudpuddle said...

i'm one of them also; must remedy soonest... have you read David Brin's "The Postman"? it's not exactly the same, but was brought to mind by your post; excellent and they made a movie out of it... great review btw... things in NY look dire from this side of the country; hope you're maintaining okay...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. I saw the film The Postman. I think that I was one of the few people who liked it. I should read the book.

I am in Suffolk county. We are about fifty miles east of the city. We seem to be at the epicenter right now. I am working from home. I normally work in a building with about 3500 people. Two people who work in the building have died. I only really knew them by sight, but it is a terrible tragedy that is close to home.

So far, my wife and I and everyone else I know have been healthy.

Satay healthy and safe.

Judy Krueger said...

Wonderful review of a book I loved so much.

James said...

This is a book I tried to read when it was first published and I did not succeed. It did not pique my interest and a friend expressed to me her dislike of the book. However, I will put it on my list and try again because the book you describe sounds different.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Judy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James. That is interesting. I am curious if you will wind it different this time.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Very much a timely book! I liked the quote(though I would add pictures of pets, especially cats!). I admit I would prefer something that did not bounce around in time, but it does seem to be a worthwhile read. Thanks for sharing!

Debra She Who Seeks said...

This sounds quite good, actually. One of my favourite post-apocalyptic novels is "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller Jr. There the apocalyptic event was not a plague, but nuclear war, but the survivors also try to establish a society based on the fragmented memories and remnants of the old, now vanished forever, civilization of our times. The book was written in the early 60s and is a sci-fi classic.

Brian Joseph said...

I agree, cat photos should be part of any description of social media. It seems like so much many books and television shows, bounce around in time these days.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great book. It was indeed about building society back based upon fragments.

mudpuddle said...

sorry to hear about the sufferers and those who passed... i was confused about what you said: wouldn't fifty miles east of NY put you out in the middle of the ocean?

Dorothy Borders said...

What an excellent review. One really gets a sense of the book which sounds like a fascinating read. I don't think I'm really up for plague fiction right now, but I'm making a note of this one for later.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Dorothy - I can see wanting to wake this.

JacquiWine said...

I don't think this is for me right now, but it does sound like a very good book. I recall it getting a lot of attention at the time of its publication.

The Liberty Belle said...

A very fine review! Thank you for sharing. Happy Easter

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - I understand not wanting to read this book now.It was popular when it came out. I think a lot of people are reading it now.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Belle. Happy Easter!

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Very fine review and if Station Eleven is the best book on plague science fiction that you have read then I am definitely interested in reading it too. I particularly like the fact that Star Trek was an influence on Mandel in writing this novel. Station Eleven reminds me a bit of Earth Abides. In that novel a virus also wipes out 95% of the world's population. The tension in Earth Abides is between Ish the leader of the group who wants to preserve civilization art culture and the rest of his group who are happy just to make do and don't want to think about humanity's future.

Sharon Wilfong said...

This sounds like an interesting story. I like all the books you mentioned. It would be nice if a world wide catastrophe caused people to develop into nice guys, but I think, human nature being the same, that gives the book its fiction side.

However, I think stories should give us a superior and ideal experience to raise our eyes to. I don't care for dismal realism.

Have a great week1

Paula Vince said...

It does sound like a very timely read, and interesting for Shakespeare and Star Trek buffs too. The cover is very appealing, and the plot sounds fairly meaty. I'm glad our global Covid-19 situation isn't as dire as that in Station Eleven!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- Really bad things do happen in this book. But the calm and slow moving nice guys are those who make things better. This book does show ugly things, but in the end it is not dismal.

Brian Joseph said...


Brian JosephApril 13, 2020 at 2:32 AM
Hi Paula - The Star Trek and Shakespeare thing is neat.

While covid -19 is serious and terribly tragic, we are luckily not facing a civilization - destroying threat level.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. I have not yet read Earth Abides. It sounds like I really should.

The Star Trek stuff was neat here.

So many books, so little time said...

I haven't read this but looking to read a few more books within this strain so going to take note of this and the others you mention. I *think* I may have the Michael Crichton one on my tbr, it certainly rings a bell and I haven't read it.

Sorry I haven't been by for ages, trying to catch up on everyone I normally visit, in between work and necessities for those shielding. Stay safe, take care xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Buried In Print said...

This is one I reread recently, in a mini-project, reading through her backlist in preparation to review her most recent novel. It's not the kind of story that I would have thought, when I first read it, that I would want to reread (imagining that, once I knew who survived and the circumstances they inhabit at the end of the novel, I wouldn't yearn to reexperience it), but I thoroughly enjoyed rereading it (in February, a little before things started to escalate in North America). Reassembling the pieces, watching how she joins the seams in this story...it's so satisfying from a character perspective. I think that's one of the aspects of her fiction that I most enjoy, she inhabits all her characters, affords them their humanity, even when they don't always behave admirably/honorably. Though I agree with you, that the frequent references to it as a timely read in our current reality, are only catching the superficial elements of her story as what we're dealing with now is quite different at the heart of it all.

Stefanie said...

I read this back when it first came out and it really did seem like science fiction! What I really liked about it is that even though bad things happened, it was not dystopian, it wasn't Mad Max or The Road, which made it feel so much more realistic. Glad you enjoyed it! I have not read Herbert's book, maybe I will some day once our current plague is a memory. Stay well!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Life gets busy.

In The Andromeda Strain, Crichton tried to write a hard science book. As I recall there was also some experimentation with the contagion using lab rats so readers should be warned about that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - Mandel really tried for realism in her past plague world.

I lot of people did not really like Herbert’s book. I thought that it was well done, but one must like Herbert’s style. I found it very disturbing. Civilization holds together, but really bad things happen.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Buried in Print.

I have not read any other books by Mandel, but I would like to know. The way that she pulls characters together here is so well done. The characters are also very flawed. This is a good thing here.

baili said...


this seems an exquisite novel dear Brain

thank you for sharing it's theme ,plot and characters so insightfully

to me it is always deep joy to learn what you read recently and how you see it ,it grooms my understanding regarding world of books

it is wise to choose this one in such times indeed ,i agree that writers express their views metaphysically and they don't stand for just present situation.
i found this highly appealing and i would like to read it for sure
stay well and healthy friend!
blessings!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - I try to look for universal themes. I find that they are there in a lot of good books.

Brian Joseph said...

The Americans coast extends East for a bit on around here. Even if it is generally north/south. It is difficult to picture unless you look at a map. That is why Connecticut and Long Island are East of New York City.

Carol said...

Very interesting review, Brian. The literary & philosophical references would attract me but I’m not that good with the type of scenario the book covers. My husband & son watched the 2011 movie Contagion recently. I heard bits of it when I went o make a cup of tea - sounded too much like the nightly news. Hope you are keeping well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I can see the hesitancy to read this book these days. As I recall, Contagion was a more realistic account of a pandemic that in some way mirrored our present situation.

Suko said...

Fabulous commentary!
This book sounds excellent.

thecuecard said...

Yeah I loved this book .... it was creative and the themes about art sustaining us through dark times was wonderful ... as well as the various characters. I had to go back & read my review of it : https://www.thecuecard.com/books/watchman-and-station-eleven/
I'm glad you liked this one!! It circles around & fits like a jigsaw puzzle so nicely done.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The circling around and the fitting together is neat.

I see that I had left a comment of your review almost five years ago.

Susan Kane said...

Excellent. The books listed we have read and enjoyed, and wow. They grabbed me, by golly.Thanks.

the bookworm said...

Glad you enjoyed this one, it does sound thought provoking. She nails it there with the social media quote. So many of us turn to social media for comfort and connection. I haven't read The Stand myself yet but I do have a copy on my shelves.
Stay well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The book is filled with these musings.

I would be curious as to what you thought of this as well as The Stand.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

A book I've been hearing lots about ... not surprising given how people are comparing the events portrayed to our current situation.

One I'd like to read, just not at this moment in time. That the narrative jumps about as it does kind of puts me off. Not something that would particularly bother me normally but I'm finding my concentration isn't the best at the moment.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity. I think a lot of people are not prepared to read this book at this time.

It seems that many of the newer books, and television series, jump around in time these days.

Rachel said...

I finished this book recently, too. In my case, I'd actually started the book before COVID-19 was a thing - I hit a reading slump in the middle there. I, too, think that any analogy is overblown. COVID-19 has nowhere near the mortality of the "flu" in Station Eleven.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Yes, even the way the Georgia Flu hit and spread was different.