“A beautifully haunting post-apocalyptic pre-utopia”
That’s my descriptor for Station Eleven a speculative fiction (SF) novel among the nominees for the National Book Awards this year. Many have described this novel as a dystopia because it’s set in a tragic future after civilization’s collapse due to a deadly pandemic influenza, but I think we should all read more carefully. This is a sheep in wolf’s clothing–a utopian novel in disguise and in the making. Impressive, Ms. Mandel. Congratulations!
Station Eleven describes the nasty fall out of the pandemic with reasonable and horrifying plausibility. How could it be otherwise in a world where 95% of the world’s population is gone in weeks and the survivors are scrambling about in dangerous and very empty lands? Yet author Emily St. John Mandel does it so lightly and skillfully, I believed her band of characters living in the future North America are probably better off in some ways than if the flu had not happened. The characters who are central to the story in the pre-flu world but did not survive are merely devices who left art and some insights to the survivors we follow in the world 15 years later.
Mandel’s survivors have been wounded, but they have not devolved into some animal-like state nor accepted brutality as their standard. They quote from Star Trek, that “survival is insufficient” to human existence. The Symphony, a caravan of actors and musicians traveling this sad world and putting on Shakespeare plays, is a beautiful thematic tribute to the necessity of art. We also follow the story of other survivors who are remaking a small airport into one of the largest known settlements in the new world, and it’s clear that community is critical to all. Even the antagonist of the novel is intent on community building. As tragic as circumstances may be, the characters are all forward facing.
And here comes the “but”.
My only criticism of Station Eleven is that such a good novel could have been even better if the author had allowed dramatic elements just a little more play. Mandel has remarked in the Washington Post that she didn’t want the novel to be labeled science fiction because she didn’t think the novel fits neatly in that genre, and she’s right. She stays firmly in the literary fiction zone of SF in an attempt to deal with an apocalypse on a human level. My criticism is not that the novel needed more of a focus on tech or an elaboration of the pandemic, but there are a few characters who could have benefitted from some more plot energy to better demonstrate their development.
Among the characters who disappoint is Jeevan, a paparazzo-turned-paramedic wastrel who should thank the flu for some personal clarity. He starts off into the apocalypse with “road kill” written all over him, but we don’t reconnect with him until far later in the novel to find he is doing pretty well as a community medicine man, thank you. I personally wanted to see his demise, because the author didn’t show me how he learned to survive. I guess some hipsters have to make it, but would it have hurt to show him dealing with armed marauders to treat someone or some other heroic crisis that one would expect would confront a person with some medical skills in this world?
Miranda, a talented artist whose comic books live on long after she dies, is another lost opportunity for demonstrating a little kick-butt action in the face of disaster, but then again, she is a victim in the “literal” world before the flu. I forgave my disappointment with Miranda because her art remains so central to the novel.
Then there is the prophet–the lost boy who serves as the only character representing human darkness in this novel. We don’t get to know him at all. It’s almost as if the author was afraid of dealing with his darkness as closely as her other characters’ light. This is ironic, because the prophet is all about convincing his followers that they are the light. The prophet gets the drama moving because he is menacing and somehow drawing people together, but then he’s gone. Did you deliberately want to kill the reference to religion and magic, Ms. Mandel?
Station Eleven is not a perfect novel, but well worth a read for its interesting speculation on human beings charged with finding light in a dark future.