In Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN, a new swine flu sweeps the planet, killing 99% of humanity and leaving a dazed few to live in the ruins and hopefully rebuild. On the plus side, the writing is beautiful, with snappy dialogue and engaging characterization. On the negative side, all of the characters connect through a central character who dies before the apocalypse begins, and whose story, largely irrelevant, occurs solely in the past, resulting in a tale that feels disjointed and never quite comes together.
Obviously, I had mixed feelings about this one, though overall I liked it quite a bit. The story begins when Arthur, a Hollywood A-lister now playing King Lear onstage in Toronto, dies of a heart attack. Through him, we are introduced to a number of other people, some of whom survive the impending viral apocalypse, some who don’t. A second thread tying many of the characters together is their exposure to a limited-edition comic, a labor of love produced by Arthur’s first wife, called STATION ELEVEN, about people living on an Earth-like space station in deep space after their planet is taken over by aliens. Some of these people are now with the Traveling Symphony, a traveling acting and musical troupe trying to keep art alive in the post-apocalyptic world.
Much of the book is devoted to Arthur’s life and relationships, which connect the characters so delicately in the past and present that it feels overly designed, except for one major character we’re introduced to at the beginning, who disappears for much of the book and oddly never interacts with the others. So those looking for literary fiction with a genre twist a la Margaret Atwood are likely to be delighted with STATION ELEVEN, while those looking for apocalyptic fiction with a literary twist may be disappointed, as this story leans heavily to the literary. While there are so many things that could have be done with keeping music and theater alive in a post-apocalyptic world, this theme largely goes unexplored. I can’t help but wonder what the novel would have been like if it had been about a musician or actor in the Traveling Symphony, past and present, rather than an actor who dies before the apocalypse. The climax, such as it is, passes by in a flash, and the story wistfully peters out at the end without any major thematic or other statement.
That being said, wow, what a writer. STATION ELEVEN is beautifully written. The dialogue is punchy, the lonely atmosphere in which people crave human connection and a meaningful life is wonderful, the characters are all interesting, and the way humanity goes out with a whimper is engaging. In every scene, the author made me care. Overall, I quite liked it for what I received from it. I just wish it had more strongly tied together, particularly in regards to plot and to an extent theme, and told a more coherent story.