Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel



Dear Station Eleven, I’m sure you’re a fine book, an uplifting book, an enjoyable book, a cozy book.

But see, here’s the thing.

I don’t believe a postapocalyptic post-superflu post-civilization dystopia should be cozy.

It's me. I know it's me. This book has received universal acclaim. But it just didn't work for me. I made it about 2/3 of the way through, but I just can't go any further. If the guilt wins out and I finish the book, I'll update, but until then, this review should be taken with a peck of salt--it's resentful and based upon an incomplete reading of the book. But it is what it is.

I suspect my tolerance for cozy postapocalypses was not improved by the story’s similarity to Stephen King’s The Stand. How similar, you ask? Well, the plots aren’t identical, precisely, but the setup pretty much is.

Station Eleven is just yet another book in which the 99.9% of the world’s population is destroyed by a superflu, in which the survivors try to rebuild cities, and in which a nasty religious Prophet gets in the way of sanity.Add in a series of flashbacks telling the life story of a long-dead actor from the people around him and references to a scifi comic book of a distant future and you've got all the metaphorical fodder for a literary masterpiece. That's as it may be, and even though I certainly caught some of the aforesaid metaphors--they're a bit hard to miss-- literary symbolism doesn't do much for my personal reading enjoyment.

I think my core problem with Station Eleven is that the story is stripped of all the gritty realism that made The Stand so vivid. I have my own issues with The Stand (and no, I’ve never shared them, partly due to a fear of pitchforks) but these pale imitations remind me of the story’s strengths.

In Mandel’s version of the post-superflu world, within 20 years, all technology is gone and they’re back to a horse-and-wagon, candle-lit society. Right. So, 99.9% of the world is gone, only 20 years have gone by, and...they’ve used up all the batteries? All the gasoline? All the canned food? Really? If that large of a population is gone, there’s suddenly a serious supply of battery-driven technology with very little demand. And it’s not like the how-to books on building your own personal hydroelectric plants have disappeared from the libraries. (Ooh, but what a great dystopia that would be: a post-library world, where all knowledge is solely digital, and where the Web collapses… has this been written yet? Can someone point me to the title?)

So...what? Did everyone say to themselves, “Gee, the population’s gone. Might as well go back to an agricultural lifestyle and ignore all the technology sitting around,” or something? I suppose it gains in picturesqueness what it loses in rationality, but in my opinion, that’s not a fair trade. And speaking of picturesqueness, where did all the horses come from? This is Toronto. There might be a few horses out there on farms, but surely not enough to become the new in-vogue transportation. Are there really more live horses than filled generators out there? Unlike batteries and bicycles, horses require attention to survive. Is there a magical farm out there, ready to supply all your post-apocalyptic hipster needs?

I don’t believe in the world that Mandel creates, and I’m honestly not sure that she does, either. Her characters don’t seem to live in a postapocalyptic world. Sure, they talk about loss and hunger and struggle, but these things don’t really touch their lives in any noticeable way. Even though the lifestyles are all back to rural country simplicity, there’s no real discussion about how middle-class-no-hands-dirty folks have had to adjust to manual labour. The survivors just seem generally stable and happy, chugging along on their horse-drawn wagons, doing Shakespeare plays. In my opinion, if 99.9% of the population died, the whole world would be filled with stinking, decaying bodies. The roads would be clogged with stalled cars. If 99.9% of the population died, then almost everyone each person knew should be dead. Instead, all of their stories involve multiple characters: Givan and Frank, Raymonde and her brother… if we assume that the disease hits randomly, the probability that even one person a survivor was close with also survived would be on the order of a tenth of a percent. Even if there were a genetic or exposure component, the likelihood of survivor pairs or groups would be very low indeed. And yes, for the bit-part characters, these statistics seem to hold true. But for the main characters? Not so much.

To be fair, I think a lot of the flashbacks work. There's one in particular--Clark in the airport--that struck me as vivid and poignant. The stalled cars, dead bodies, etc are present during many of the flashbacks, but even then, the death feels oddly distant, and the acknowledgement of chaos makes it all the more strange to find it all apparently forgotten in the 20-years-after version. I believe that the death, the decay, the loss of life...they would all be utterly inescapable. But instead, Mandel’s world is just sort of empty, at least from the characters’ observations. It’s as if that 99.9% just evaporated, Rapture style.

And then there’s the antagonist. Oh, those religious types. How our media loves to go after them. How easy, how convenient, how comforting to demonize.

Basically, Mandel’s version of a postapocalyptic world is cozy. It’s a comforting idea, that so much of the population could die and yet leave behind a neat, clean world and a throwback society that could adopt all the quaint customs we’re still rather nostalgic about. Horse-drawn carriages, outdoor stagings of Shakespeare, a night of candlelight… how very nice.

How very cozy. It’s a sweet idea, and I suspect it would be a fun read if you could get into the right mindset, but that’s just not something I’m able to manage.

At least to my mind, apocalypses have no business being cozy.