RogerBW's Blog

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel 23 July 2018

2014 post-apocalyptic SF. A famous actor dies during a performance of King Lear; outside, the world is ending in pandemic.

I'm increasingly realising that my standard approach to SF, of a puzzle to be solved, is not only insufficient but can in fact be harmful. This story isn't a puzzle. There are some very small puzzles in it (what did X's dying words mean), and some of them are solved by the end of the book, but mostly what it's there to do is provide an atmosphere.

And it's in service of that atmosphere that the narrative is chopped out of order, with events from well before the fast-incubating 'flu pandemic (that kills 99% of the world's population and ends civilisation) juxtaposed with events ten or twenty years later. It makes piecing together what happened in what order a puzzle in itself, but a pointless one – because it doesn't particularly matter, because it's an authorial conceit; the advantage to me of a linear narrative is that one can concentrate on the puzzles that matter to the characters.

There's the standard sort of post-apocalyptic clutter, like a nasty Prophet who takes multiple "wives", but the more interesting side of the story is how people accept that civilisation is over, and try to make new lives: the one who starts a newspaper, the one who keeps a museum of things from the old world to explain to the children who are too young to remember electricity or cars. And there's a side note of how easily memories fade, whether the computer that someone's got going with a bicycle-driven generator really looks the way computers did twenty years ago; and ultimately, does it really matter?

The book relies, for my taste, too heavily on its disorderly narrative to maintain interest; it also ties all its events to the same limited cast of characters, making the world of survivors feel bizarrely small. And some threads are dropped after they've made their aesthetic point; I'd have liked to know what happened to those off-shore container ship maintenance crews, not exposed to the plague, but with nowhere safe to land. What did they do, and why didn't we hear more about them? Because they were just background detail, included to make an Important Character's death scene more interesting. And the titular comic, Station Eleven, turns out in the end not to be anything more than a thread connecting present to past.

There are so many wasted opportunities that it's hard to recommend the book, though like Zoo City which I reviewed recently it's more of a showpiece than a story; the point, I think, is to get the feeling of the threads that span the fall of civilisation, more than to build a narrative.

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