“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenThere are a few reasons why I read this novel. The main ones: because of the hype and because Slate Audio Book Club had such a wonderful discussion on it. I was delayed in purchasing the book so I downloaded a sample, which took the edge off my craving for the story. It was a few days before I could buy and read the entire thing and during the wait, my anticipation and expectation of the story gradually grew. However, I believe I would have had a more positive reading experience if not for the break between the sample and reading the story in its entirety.

Quick summary:

“Time had been reset by catastrophe.”

It’s present day. You’re going about your life as you normally do. There’re news alerts about an obscure flu outbreak in a country or state not exactly close to yours. You listen to the broadcast but you’re not alarmed. The outbreaks don’t seem threatening, plus they are nowhere close to you. As days pass, you hear more announcements about outbreaks that seem to be happening more rapidly. Some hospitals are too understaffed to handle the cases; others are quarantined. Then you hear that the flu is in your city. Someone you know has the symptoms. People are afraid, even the usually unperturbed newscasters are shaken. People are getting sick and dying quickly. It’s an epidemic. But you have hope. You believe the government will sort all this out eventually so you barricade yourself in your apartment and you wait…

Twenty years later, the world is not as it once was. Sure there are computers and televisions and vehicles, but they don’t work. The giant Internet is gone and there’s no electricity. People have to rely on their skills and abilities and that of others to survive. Some gather together to help each other. Others prey on whomever they get an advantage on, feeding off the weak. But people are resilient and despite the disadvantages, they work at rebuilding what they once had.

My thoughts:

That’s a weird summary, eh. But that’s what the story is about, well part of it anyway. It’s also about several unrelated characters who are connected by one character’s influence, an actor named Arthur Leander.

It’s a multi-perspective novel that jumps back and forth between the past and present telling us about events leading up to the flu pandemic and what happens after it. It’s well-written, highly detailed, and plunges deep into what motivates humans to push on after a disease wipes out most of its species. The story touches on a variety of topics ranging from existentialist inquiries to aesthetical and psychological ones.

Though deeply thought-provoking, the story is easy to read and enjoyable despite the dire and strained situations. It made me more concerned about how our actions today will affect the future and made me wonder how well could I adapt to a world devoid of the comforts I take for granted. It made me question my reality and marvel at this thing we call the Internet. It made me reflect on my life, on all I’ve since accomplished and those whom I’ve influenced whether directly or indirectly. It made me wonder at what my legacy will be and what is it that I’m truly passionate about. And it made me afraid because I read it during a snow storm.

Spoiler territory below. Enter at your own risk. If you’d rather skip it, just jump to the Overall section below.

Reading Station Eleven during January’s “snowpocalypse” was NOT a good idea. It made me anxious. While reading from Jeevan’s perspective about the days leading up to the end of the epidemic, I was huddled under blankets peering out at streets thick with snow while listening to news alerts warning people not to venture outside for anything. Every so often, I would hear of an accident or a car stuck in the snow or some other emergency. It was horrible reading weather for this book, but it was helpful in getting me to easily imagine what the characters in the story were going through.

The flu pandemic is such a traumatic experience that the characters are mentally scarred by it. I like how the story explores how people interpret such an experience and try to make sense of their lives afterward. Clark copes by preserving his memories and the past in a museum. Kirsten copes by focusing on her new life and not dwelling on the past. Elizabeth copes by believing she was saved due to some sort of divine intervention. Her belief and the sprouting of numerous prophets after the epidemic made me reflect on how religion is used and wonder why is it always the crazy person who’s devout in these situations.

My copy
My copy

If the world ended, what would you do? What would I do? A travelling group of performers is not something I would have thought of. My assumption is that if the world should end or if society should be disrupted by an extreme chaotic event, then the last thing on people’s minds would be the creation of art. I’m wrong, of course, since there’s evidence to the contrary throughout history but it’s what I think. This then made me think about the meaning of art and its function in society and its meaning to us humans. Why do we create or perform?

In the story, it seems that the Travelling Symphony’s performances bring a moment’s reprieve to the those who survived the flu but must suffer the aftermath. For a while, those people can connect with their fellow humans on a higher level and forget that the world isn’t as it once was. I like the Travelling Symphony, mostly because I find it random that there is one. But I also like that they are a family, they care for each other, and along with their instruments and costumes, they are loaded with weapons that they know how to use.

“In the en suite bathroom, Kirsten closed her eyes for just a second as she flipped the light switch. Naturally nothing happened, but as always in these moments she found herself straining to remember what it had been like when this motion had worked: walk into a room, flip a switch and the room floods with light.”

The most striking thing about this story is how it portrays the reality we now live in. I believe it is the first book I’ve read that stands in the future and reflects on a past that I’m living and experiencing. In that way, it’s a bit surreal. It made me feel as if I’m living a fairytale.

In the story’s future, there is no electricity and no Internet. Children are born not knowing how a plane flies or having seen a computer work. They are told about these things by their elders, but they find it hard to imagine something moving as fast as an airplane and speaking of the Internet is akin to telling them that Santa Clause exists (well, that’s the impression I got while reading).

It’s both illuminating and funny when the Internet is discussed. It made me wonder just what is this amorphous Internet. It’s a question I’ve asked before and googled (there’s no googling in that future. The term “google” is probably an absurd term to those post-apocalypse kids.) and with prior knowledge and experience with electricity and technology, I was able to grasp and understand the answer. But just imagine having to explain to someone what the Internet is and how it is used but without any evidence of it or electricity or other advanced technology to support your answer. All you have are the remains of the things used to conduct it. It’s as if you’re explaining that magic is real (maybe it is, maybe the Internet is magic).

Add to that the fact that someone is always intent on “finding” the elusive Internet (a quest) and then the whole thing seems fantastical. In that way, the story made me view my reality as if it is fairytale. It made me wonder that if this book was written by someone in a future similar to that in the book, then maybe it would have been considered a fantasy, that is if the Internet is never found and electricity never returns. This passage, especially, stood out:

“In Traverse City, the town they’d recently left, an inventor had rigged an electrical system in an attic. It was modest in scope, a stationary bicycle that when pedaled vigorously could power a laptop, but the inventor had grandeur aspirations: the point wasn’t actually the electrical system, the point was that he was looking for the Internet. A few of the younger Symphony members had felt a little thrill when he’d said this, remembered the stories they’d been told about WiFi and the impossible-to-imagine Cloud, wondered if the Internet might still be out there somehow, invisible pinpricks of light suspended in the air around them.”

The characters were also interesting but Miranda stood out the most to me. In a way, she’s almost as influential as Arthur. I admire her dedication to her project, her comic book. The irony that we readers admire Miranda, a comic book artist, more than her ex-boyfriend, who was a fine artist who did oil paintings, is what appealed to me in that Slate Audio Book Club discussion that I mentioned above. The story twists our assumptions of what sort of artwork is better. Comic books today aren’t revered as high art yet we more so admire Miranda’s creations than her ex’s. I think by doing that Mandel is showing that it’s the dedication and efforts of the artist that really matters. After all, the reason why we admire Miranda’s work more is because we see that she is dedicated to it and does not create to gain fame or wealth but simply because she wants to.

Arthur also stood out to me because it’s he who connects all the characters. So we only hear from the characters who remembers Arthur and it’s not until close to the end that we learn why this is so. In this way, Arthur gets his wish to be remembered (well, so I think).

Overall: ★★★★☆ ½

In the process of writing this reflection, I’ve changed my rating from 3 to 4.5 stars. The hype around the novel made me believe that I would be blown away by it while reading. That didn’t happen and when done, I couldn’t see why everyone was excited about it. It’s a good story, interesting, well written — that’s all I thought of it when done. But now I’m at the end of this reflection and I’ve realized just how much goes on in this story. It’s very thought provoking. So there, 4.5 stars.

Also, I find it hard to categorize this book. Where in my book database should I place it? It’s kind of sci-fi but not really. I only consider it sci-fi because it’s a bit dystopian but the ending seems hopeful so I’m not sure if it’s even fully dystopian. I’m stumped, Emily St. John Mandel.

By the way, it would be so cool I could read Miranda’s comic book. 😉 😉

Quotes from the book:

“The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.”

“These taken-for-granted miracles that had persisted all around them.”

— I like this sentence because it strikes on what stood out the most to me while reading.

“If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

“When Kirsten had left Toronto with her brother, he’d told her she could bring one book in her backpack, just one, so she’d taken Dear V. because her mother had told her she wasn’t allowed to read it.”

— This makes me think back to all the bookish tags in the blogosphere. Also, if I were Kirsten, what would I choose?

“There’s a brief period most nights when the two moons float side by side on the surface. The fake moon, which has the advantage of being closer and not obscured by smog, is almost always brighter than the real one.”

— This is about the moon and the light of a lamp reflected in a pool. I really like it both for the imagery and what is being said about the character’s relationship.

“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”


4 thoughts on ““Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

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