Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Posted: May 7, 2017 in Book Review
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It took me a few weeks to come to terms with this novel, but I finally did and this is what I decided: despite the hype about Station Eleven, or perhaps because of the hype, the book turned out to be a huge disappointment for me.

About :

It starts off brilliantly with an actor’s onstage death that, while seeming both tragic and horrible to the cast and fans, also feels right—this is an elderly actor, surrounded by his favorite people, doing his favorite thing amidst the glorious fanfare of playing King Lear, dying a completely natural death. Sad, but, in a sense, also normal and even enviable. The way a person wants to die. (This scene made me want to go pick up King Lear, immediately, which is a bonus. I love being inspired to read classics by reading modern books.)

Then, as the acting cast meets afterwards in a bar to take in the death of their lead, we get this line:

Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on a road out of the city.”

Whoa, what!? This compelling line introduces the coming apocalypse—which, we soon learn, will be in the form of an epidemic that causes collapse of human civilization. The actor’s death is indeed a happy mercy in comparison. The perfect prose sets up the drama of this revelation perfectly.

Unfortunately, the prose is the only thing I enjoyed about the rest of the book. My interest died fairly soon after that amazing intro, after which we find ourselves following a cast of narrators connected in distant and basically meaningless ways. The revelations about those character connections are supposed to somehow give the novel structure, but the strategy doesn’t really work. It just reads like a bunch of character sketches set against a relatively static “post-apocalyptic” background. We see the fall of humanity through the eyes of these characters, which is sort of interesting, but…

Thoughts :

For me, two problems killed the character-driven premise of “examining the individual and collective human response to apocalypse.”

First of all, the cast is boring, completely average and largely unchanging. These are normal people who make huge mistakes, but never redeem themselves. The two characters who do change only do so in flashbacks: the actor, imo the least sympathetic character, and the vaguely-Protestant-sounding cult leader. Although Mandel attempts to give the story structure by following the arcs of the actor and the cult leader, both are snoozeworthy. I’ve read so much more interesting and illuminating portrayals of religious nutsos (see Hazel Motes in Wiseblood or St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre or even Kelsier in Mistborn!), so this kind of religious stereotype completely bores me.

Second, Mandel wrote Station Eleven almost entirely from the viewpoint of non-religious peoples of European descent. A little more diversity would have gone a long way toward creating a more compelling cast. The lack of sane religious people in particular seems like an odd disparity in a post-apocalyptic population. So, in regards to religious people, either: (1) ALL of them are nuts; (2) ALL the sane ones died already; or (3) ALL the sane ones were raptured!

‘What about the post-apocalyptic setting?’ you may be wondering. Well…it’s largely static, like the characters, unfortunately. [Highlight to view SPOILER: After the initial fall, we just see everything collapse again and again through the eyes of the cast, and that’s where it stays. Nothing else happens, no clues about the future. Maybe that’s what Mandel is saying: the future remains static forever. I guess you could interpret it that way, but it’s boring and relatively hopeless and in conjunction with everything else I didn’t like about this story? MEH. ]

To end on a high point: several members of the cast belong to a troupe of Shakespearean actors traveling through the wasteland, and Mandel uses them to share the redeeming power of story. I enjoyed that theme, even if it is apparently the exclusive source of meaning and hope characters find in the world of this novel (which is just silly. I love my books, but I don’t base my identity and hope in them, and I certainly wouldn’t do so in the case of an apocalypse. That, in addition to the apparent Theophobia??, made it difficult for me to find myself anywhere in this novel). Still, imaginary bonus points for the lit love.

Overall :

Dull, dull, dull. I’ve read literary fiction that accomplishes all of this with far greater success, so I really don’t understand why people loved this one. There’s just such better stuff out there. For a much more compelling character-driven and literary post-apocalyptic novel, I would recommend Arslan by M. J. Engh. Happily, I just reviewed it two days ago and it’s fresh enough that I’ll guarantee a much more thoughtful reading experience than Station Eleven can provide. Still not much plot, but the characters are way more interesting PLUS they’re unreliable narrators, which, I mean, bonus points, right?

So I gave Station Eleven 1 star for the prose, 1 star for the terrific intro and a half a star for a half-way decent cast. But I rounded down because I was so disappointed.

2.5/5 STARS

Recommended To:

If you super-love post-apocalyptic fiction, you might still enjoy Station Eleven, especially since it’s so mainstream and popular now. It will likely come up in conversations about literary sci-fi, and sometimes it’s just fun to take part in a popular sci-fi fandom. My library is giving away free copies of it this year for the Big Read, which is really a big deal for a science fiction novel!

Station Eleven is adult post-apocalyptic science fiction authored by Emily St. John Mandel and published September 9th 2014 by Knopf. Hardcover, 336 pages. The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

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Comments
  1. Joelendil says:

    Great review! There have been a couple times where I considered checking this out because of the hype but it never looked quite compelling enough. I think next time I’m in the mood for post-apocalyptic I’ll reread “A Canticle for Leibowitz ” instead

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy Luis says:

      Thanks so much 😀 That sounds like a good plan. A lot of readers really enjoyed Station Eleven, but I think there’s tons of better stuff out there, and if you already know what it is, this one can be safely skipped.

      Like

  2. TeacherofYA says:

    Did you like it? Bc that’s all I need to know. Sounds like it was boring…?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy Luis says:

      It was totally boring and uninspired, imo XD I didn’t like it at all. I did like that it drew a lot of attention to the genre of sci-fi; but for us readers who already enjoy SFF, I think it’s a dud.

      Like

  3. Redhead says:

    Sorry to hear this one didn’t work out for you, seems like people are very polarized on it, they either really really liked it, or were bored to tears by it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy Luis says:

      Oh, thank you for saying that because only one of my reader friends felt the same way I did! Everyone else I know seemed to love it, so I couldn’t figure out what I was missing XD

      Like

  4. I’ve wanted to read this one for a long time! Seems like everyone loves it, so it’s a bit refreshing to see a review that goes against the grain. Funny thing is, I’ve read enough books that have been compared to Station Eleven that I think I have a good idea how it’s like, if you know what I mean? LOL! I still want to try it though. I’m going to be putting it on my to-read-list again for Sci-Fi Month this November, even though I’ve failed to get to it in the last two years – third time’s the charm, here’s hoping 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy Luis says:

      Oh good, if you do get a chance to read it, then I can compare our reactions XD I’m so curious about whether you’ll like it! I only know one other reader who didn’t, so there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy…

      Like

  5. Nathan says:

    I am like Mogsy. I keep saying I will read it THIS year. Thus far, it hasn’t happened.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy Luis says:

      Not missing much, imo XD It’s really nothing new or fantastic. I think a lot of first-time sci-fi readers just discovered “adult post-apocalyptic” and fell in love with the idea of it!

      Like

  6. Tammy says:

    It always surprises me when I read negative reviews for this book, but after reading your review, I do understand what you’re saying. I loved it for all the reasons you didn’t. It’s a realistic story of what losing electricity might be like, not a far fetched sci fi action adventure. It is definitely more on the literary side of things:-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy Luis says:

      You’re so right, the background is totally scary in how real and possible it feels! I mean if 99% + of the population died, this probably is exactly what would happen *shiver* So in that sense, yiiiiikes! Lol. Glad to hear you enjoyed it so much XD I remember reading your review for it before I read the book itself and thought, “Oh goody, I bet I’ll love this then!” Drat it, I just couldn’t get into this cast. But I’m so glad you did Tammy!!

      Like

  7. Your detailed and thoughtful review helped me focus on the reason I’ve kept this book on the “next” list but never went one step further and actually read it: despite the fascinating premise (post-apocalyptic stories are among my favorite kind of novels) there was that little nagging doubt that this might not be the right book for me. No reason, really, just a sort of… dull vibe, for want of a better word. And now that I’ve read your comments – especially those about the overall dullness of the story – I will have to think a bit more before taking the eventual plunge.
    Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy Luis says:

      Aw, thanks so much Maddalena! Your complimentary comments also make me smile 😊 I just couldn’t find anything new or noteworthy in this one- it just seems like there’s way better stuff out there! The characters aren’t all stereotypes, but none of them seems to make much in the way of meaningful change; and the setting has been done before, with equal plausibility and tons more tension.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ah sounds a little generic- and I’m not sold on the characters- but great review!!

    Liked by 1 person

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