Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

 

**Update: I originally DNF'd this, but a combination of guilt and absence of other reading materials drove me to finish.

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 even though it should have been a pleasant, comforting read, it just didn't work for me. Part of the problem is that I've read several post-apocalyptic novels recently, and it's a genre I find draining. Part of the problem, I suspect, was that I was rather bored, and when I'm not absolutely captivated, the sceptic that lives in the back of my head starts making comments about the worldbuilding and before I know it, I'm in a lather about magically ubiquitous hipster horses.

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 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. The story is certainly very readable, with a gentle third-person narration that lends a distant, abstracted feeling to it all. But the sceptic in the back of my head just couldn't reconcile the tone with the contents.

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 discovered that I have a visceral reaction against the idea of a cozy pandemic tale. Uplifting? Sure, if you can manage it. But the situation must be acknowledged. Millions upon millions of people are dead: strangers, friends, family. This isn't a genre that should be allowed to be cozy.

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? All of the antibiotics? 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 all the solar panels or the how-to books on building your own personal hydroelectric plants have disappeared from the libraries. And where did all those horses come from? I suppose it gains in picturesqueness what it loses in rationality, but in my opinion, that’s not a fair trade.

Mandel is a talented writer, and her pre-apocalyptic scenes do come to life. But during and afterwards? It all feels removed, distanced, abstract. Sure, the characters talk about loss and hunger and struggle, but they don't seem to feel them. Even though the lifestyles are all back to rural country simplicity, there’s no real discussion about the struggle of adjusting, the desperation or uncertainty. The survivors just seem generally stable and happy, chugging along on their horse-drawn wagons, listening to Shakespeare plays.

The flashbacks portray a world of stalled cars and dead bodies, but even then, it feels distant. In one segment, people trapped inside an airport hear about the events outside only through the sterilized portraits of the news. The reality of the horror all around them is confined to a tiny screen, snapshots of a world they never directly interact with. In some ways, I think this is an analogue for the rest of the book. If 99.9% of the population died, then the world must be filled with stinking, decaying bodies, the roads clogged by cars and the cars themselves simply portraits of death and decay. I believe that the death, the decay, the loss of life...they would all be utterly inescapable. Yet in the 20-years-later version, all the chaos seems to have vanished. Mandel's postapocalyptic world just seems empty, as if the 99.9% simply 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, a mother cooking dinner while her husband is out in the fields… how very nice.

I really regret my inability to enjoy this book. There shouldn't be anything wrong with Nice. Sometimes I wish I could strangle the sceptic in the back of my head, but like the book's characters, it's just too resilient. If the world falls, then at least for a few generations, I think it should be nightmare. I find it troubling to imagine that so many lives could be so quickly forgotten, and that the survivors grieve for civilization instead of civilians.

In the end, I guess I believe that apocalypses have no business being cozy.