A Review of Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is an imaginative take on what the world might be like, and how people would attempt to persevere, in the wake of a catastrophic pandemic flu. With the majority of the globe’s population wiped out, and the modern world stripped of all of its conveniences, cleanliness, and order, how would people survive? Mandel takes the question beyond just day-to-day survival to examine how we would really make it by nourishing our minds and hearts with theater and music. She shamelessly lifts a line from Star Trek: Voyager to assert that “survival is insufficient.”

And so in Mandel’s post-“Georgia flu” world, set in Canada and the United States, a band of amateur musicians and actors, called the Traveling Symphony, travels the countryside performing Shakespeare and various musical overtures for assorted towns and settlements of survivors. The main character is Kirsten, a former child actress who remembers little of her youth and who has become hardened by the dangers inherent in a lawless land. Interspersed with the main tale of Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony performing their way south and having to confront a messianic cult figure are flashbacks of the pre-flu world, told through the characters of Arthur, a Hollywood actor, and his first wife, Miranda, a student, then a shipping executive.

Station Eleven is classified as science fiction and even won the Arthur C. Clarke award, which is odd, because there’s hardly any science anywhere in the book. Mandel spends no time explaining the origin or path of the flu and is not interested in the scientific ways people might try to recover. Instead, she focuses on the arts and explores our need to sustain culture over technology.

Kirsten’s steadfastness as a performer, both as an actress and as a knife fighter (pointedly, not guns), is refreshing at a time when female heroines are all being made to be more like men, as in the latest Star Wars installments and recent comic book movies. Mandel clearly wrote much of herself into the character of Miranda, a geeky writer of the eponymous and unpublished Dr. Eleven comic books that give the book its title. Miranda falls in with Arthur, the standard self-absorbed mega-actor, and is overcome by the Hollywood lifestyle before finding her footing in the shipping industry in Toronto, where Arthur first swept her off her feet.

I appreciated the book’s unspoken irony of Kirsten’s obsession with finding books and magazines about Arthur. She acted with him in a stage play before the flu hit and spends her free time trying to find old printed material about him (remember, there’s no technology anymore). Even after the end of the world we’ll still be obsessed with celebrities.

I did not care for the book’s representation of religion. None of the characters look to God in the face of this adversity, nor is religious practice incorporated into the “arts” Mandel champions. Which is not surprising from a modern, Manhattan-based writer and her publishing house, nor a problem on its own. The problem is that the only character who is religious is a zealot who’s hijacked the New Testament to start his own cult following, menace everyone, and steal all the women. Eventually they run up against the Traveling Symphony, and I’m sure you can guess who wins. I have a strong suspicion that Mandel views all believers as these kinds of nuts who are either treacherous or misguided. Such a treatment is a pity, because it’s the Church that would probably maintain much of our culture and keep society from devolving into outright anarchy if the “Georgia flu” scenario ever happened. It was the Church, after all, that kept Western civilization during the Dark Ages.

Station Eleven is a breezy read suitable for the beach that will probably make you think: “I really ought to patronize the symphony and the theater soon, before the world ends.”

Doug Paul