Book Review – Station Eleven

A typical science fiction story is both traditional and not. When I say this, I don’t mean to sound schizophrenic, nor do I mean to sound indecisive (splunge!). A successful science fiction story is often big on innovative ideas, speculation and extrapolation of what might be if xyz technology existed. It has been called a “literature of ideas”.

Another popular style is not science fiction at all; it is adventure, space opera. The only thing that makes this kind of story science fiction is the setting. Space ships and aliens could just as easily be navy ships and pirates. If the story isn’t space opera, then mainstream science fiction story structures and plots are more often than not structured to enable exploration of the main speculative concept. There is a beginning, middle, and end. The innovative concept is fully explored. I generalize, of course.

Station Eleven is not a typical science fiction story.

Synopsis: The Georgia flu wipes out 99% of the world population in days. The story jumps between characters before and after the collapse showing multiple characters’ stories. There is a traveling symphony playing classical music and performing Shakespeare. An actor who dies just pre-apocalypse ties the many characters together.

What makes a book of this genre successful – to ME – is that the innovative concept is what is explored. I was hoping to find something new about how humanity is changed, how civilization continues, or doesn’t. There wasn’t much in Station Eleven that hadn’t been explored before, and better. A typical 42 minute episode of The Walking Dead is more effective. I was hoping to see exploration of how art is essential to civilization. It’s what makes us human. But that seemed only hinted at.

In the end, the characters are connected. This was interesting, but again, not explored. A major protagonist and antagonist at the end of the story are linked by a figure from their pasts, and a comic book from which the novel gets its name. When they meet, nothing, again there is no exploration. Disappointing.

So what did I like?

I liked the prose. Ms. Emily St. John Mandel can evoke images, impressions, and feelings like a pro. Ok, she is a pro, having written several other novels before this. Though I felt that the opening chapter was perhaps the least polished and most forced, most others were well crafted. One example begins with the following:

AN INCOMPLETE LIST: No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights.

This goes on for a page or two and evoked a sense of loss and longing. Most pages are equally well crafted. And I like a well-crafted turn of phrase.

As a science fiction novel, I don’t think Station Eleven is successful. That said, I can understand why it sells. The turns of phrase evoked images and emotion. And when the story veered away from the apocalypse and focused on the relationships of famous artists in the pre-apocalypse period, Ms. St. John Mandel was in her element. If you expect science in your fiction, you’ll be disappointed. If you enjoy reading about fictional famous actors and their relationships then you’ll enjoy it.

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