Book Review: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Published by Iain Aschendale in the blog Iain Aschendale's blog. Views: 113

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel


This is what Douglas Coupland would write if he were a better writer.

That's not to say that he's not a good writer, in fact, I think he's a very good one, but when I read this, I couldn't help but compare it with some of his work, and the comparison didn't come out well. Perhaps it's just the Canadian thing, although most of it takes place in the US, the book starts in Toronto, and it has a certain Canadian feel to it, at least to my eyes, but it tread paths that Coupland has previously been down in Girlfriend in a Coma.

Yup, it's a post-apocalypse book, so if that's an outright deal-breaker for you, stop reading here and move on to something else.

Seriously, I won't judge you, anything to do with the Singularity or transhumanism and I'm out mid-sentence.

But anyway, I'll keep this so that there are only the most minor of spoilers, the kind of thing that you'd learn by reading the cover blurb.

It's post-apocalypse, post super-swine flu, the kind of flu that leaves you cooling on a slab less than a day after exposure, the kind that's so transmissible that the remaining human population is a rounding error. But what sets this apart from so much post-apoc is that everyone is affected, nothing holds, nothing really rebuilds, there's no Bartertown, no Water and Power Authority, no Capital District, just a whole bunch of people stumbling through as best they can. Closer to The Road than I Am Legend.

And while it's muted and minor key throughout, it takes place in the American Midwest, near Lake Michigan, which gives it a certain appeal to me as I understand the seasons, the terrain, the people.

Technically its SF, but it was published in 2014, and the world ended about then, so there is not a single thing in the book that does not exist in our current culture and tech level, and most everything that does isn't even decorative anymore. Who carries an iPhone when there's no way to charge it, no signal, and no internet anymore?

It's not SF, it's literature, but literature with a small β€œl”. Mandel won an Arthur C. Clarke award for it, but... I dunno, I have a certain contempt for modern literature, there's a subset of authors that I can't help but feel put down their final edit and start thinking about their Mann-Booker acceptance speeches. The books that are meant to be commented on sagely, displayed, read with an eye to allegory and symbolism, quoted at dinner parties with the Right Sort of People, perhaps even, if one is very lucky, banned by some red-state school district, but not actually read for enjoyment. This isn't lowbrow, far from it, there's a lot of thought put into things, it's all about connections, in a way, but I found myself just liking it, wanting to keep going.

From a writer's view, there are a couple things I found interesting as well. There are characters whose names hint at their ethnicity, but they're not described physically except in the most general terms, but there are other characters who are covered in minute detail, down to the sounds of their voices, because that appearance is relevant to the plot. There's a gay character who we know is gay because when we're in his close third sphere, he thinks about his boyfriend, but that's it. There's no sex, hetero or otherwise, save for the occasional threat of rape, but anything that happens takes place well off-screen, so his orientation doesn't matter except to flesh him out. There are a lot of things that go undescribed, but the author has an amazing way with description when she chooses to. Very minor spoiler plot-wise, but one of the best lines in the book language-wise, so skip it if you choose to:

β€œIt isn't like any dog [she's] ever seen...it looks like a cross between a fox and a cloud.”

That, gentle readers, is how you describe a white Pomeranian.

Anyway, a highly recommended book. I rationed it, and at ~330 pages, it lasted me the weekend.
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