Overview (No Spoilers):
When Station Eleven first came out in 2014 I foolishly ignored the hype due to feeling burned out by the seemingly countless other dystopian novels I’d read during that time period. Seven years later, I still am seeing this title pop up on the best science fiction reads of the past twenty years. With my curiosity piqued, I picked up this read, only to be hooked from the very first chapter. St. John Mandel effortlessly weaves this story, conveying hidden depths and establishing complex characters with ease through the slightest interactions. This allows the reader to fill in the blanks with the use of well placed flashbacks. One of my favorite parts of this book is the setting, which has special meaning for me as the majority of Station Eleven takes place in my home state of Michigan, referencing many locations I know and love. St. John Mandel also includes fictional town names that I enjoyed hypothesizing as to the original name based on key clues. The Traveling Symphony actually travels along a route that would take them only a few miles from my home farm.
This genre was hard to peg as it feels like science fiction, however there’s no advanced, nonexistent technology present. From reading online, I’m not the only reader that came away from this novel with this misidentification, especially as I found this title on a ‘Best of Science Fiction’ list. Additionally, while mainly dystopian, Station Eleven veers into an almost a fantasy/mystery feel as people unaccountably begin to disappear. Though that enigma is eventually cleared up, it definitely heightened the overall suspense as the added, unexplained quandary keeps the reader guessing.
Station Eleven follows quite a few perspectives, who are all ‘related’ to one central character. For some of the characters it takes some time to reveal what the connection actually is, though this common thread makes several plot twists rather predictable. The elegant story telling more than makes up for the obvious twists and turns, keeping the suspense alive with well placed flashbacks to the time before the flu.
The ending seemed rather abrupt with so much left unexplained, leaving an unfinished feel. That said, these unresolved feelings were associated with the world at large, instead of the characters themselves. Overall, Station Eleven very much deserves a spot among the top science fiction (still not sure on the genre) reads of the 2010s, due to the beautiful storytelling and detailed worldbuilding that make up one of the better examples of dystopian literature I’ve read.
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):
- I kept expecting Jeevan to be drawn back into the fold like all of the other ‘related’ characters. It was nice that he appeared to find some peace and happiness within his life compared to when we first met him. What happened to his girlfriend at the beginning of the book? Did she regret not trying to find him?
- How did Elizabeth die? Tyler’s death, while happening during a high intensity moment, lacked closure from the terror he’d wrought. He didn’t realize how Kirsten was connected to his father. What did he think as she was quoting Station Eleven back to him?
- I was fascinated by how the story kept looping back to Arthur Leander and the people surrounding him. While his death had nothing to do with the flu it seemed to mark the end of an era.
- There’s a scene in the book where Jeevan is getting as many groceries as he can to prepare for the panic and being shut in once he realizes the Georgia Flu is going to be widespread. At one point he looks around and realizes how this is the last vestiges of life being normal. I remember having a similar experience in early March 2020 when I was stocking up on groceries after realizing we only kept enough food in the house for one week and Covid still seemed far away. I felt crazy having that much food and life essentials in one cart and looking around wondering what life would be like in the upcoming weeks when the panic hit. Granted it never got nearly as crazy as the flu in Station Eleven, but the stores were picked clean from the panic only a week or two after my stocking up trip.
- Why didn’t the Museum of Civilization/Severn City Airport send out someone to visit the town with the lights? How did they get their lights back on?
- It was an interesting decision to have the majority of the Travelling Symphony only identified by their instrument and chair positions.
- Miranda and her Dr. Eleven comics showed a surprising longevity despite only having ten copies made. Would she have published them for the masses had the flu not intervened? I was so annoyed with Authur giving a copy away to the random girl from his current play. And it comes full circle that the copy ended up with Clark.
I enjoyed the style of the writing, and thought the concept was intriguing and the theme of humanity needing something inspirational beyond mere physical survival was uplifting. What kept me from liking “Station Eleven” better than I did was that Arthur Leander came across as a wretched person, and thus I had a hard time connecting to a story centered around those with strong affinity to him; he’s not worthy of the adoration of Kirsten, and Jeevan’s story felt like a minor footnote. I also found the Prophet’s identity to be lacking in surprise, and thus the ending felt a bit too pat.
For me, it was a solid read, but not exceptional… though I guess the fact that it still stands out to me after I read it in 2015 may refute that? 😀
BTW, if you haven’t already, check out Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s “The Mercies”. It was a fantastic read.
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