Book review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The exquisitely evocative cover for Station Eleven, designed by Nathan Burton (image via and (c) Nathan Burton Design / Picador)
The exquisitely evocative cover for Station Eleven, designed by Nathan Burton (image via and (c) Nathan Burton Design / Picador)


For a place and time that humanity is yet to reach, the future dystopian era certainly bears all the hallmarks of a road well travelled.

In fact, so well depicted have been its tropes of ruin and decay, its harbingers of humanity’s demise and whirlwind-reaping that you could be forgiven for thinking we have already reached this dark and terrible land already, that even as we sit comfortably in our chairs and read books like Emily St. John Mandel’s searingly-evocative and emotionally-chilling journey to our possibly salvation-less future Station Eleven, that we are already irretrievably caught in its web of pestilence and famine, of civilisation lost and zombies found.

Thankfully that future hasn’t befallen us just yet, and with a bit of luck, a lot less hubris, and a great deal of good planning, may yet be avoided; however if we need any further convincing that it is worth working, and working hard, to avoid this fate worse than death – assuming that we can of course – then books like Station Eleven are necessary reading.

Set in the present day, the very near future and the just slightly off in the middle distance future, St. John’s Mandel’s beautifully-written book is a refreshing take on the post apocalyptic genre with its narrative balancing ever so precariously and yet perfectly in the here-and-now and the yet-to-be, its words seemingly dancing off the pages so poetically-rendered is the end of the world (if the world does indeed skitter to a cataclysmic end for the majority of the species homo sapiens sapiens, you will want to hope that this author survives it so she can tell its history in the same engrossing manner as the novel).

“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult come by.” (from the start of chapter 6, headline “An Incomplete List”)

What is so remarkably different about Station Eleven is the way it both keeps a constant eye on the present, on the events, mostly ordinary and banal, leading up to the world-scouraging flu pandemic that in a matter of weeks reducing humanity to a 7 billion-plus swarm engulfing the world to a barely noticeable tens of millions dispersed across impossible distance, while regaling us with a world in which technology, though remembered and venerated even by those too young to have witnessed it firsthand – there is even a Museum of Civilisation full of dead iPads and useless credit cards in one settlement – has long ceased to have any meaningful presence or impact.

Humanity has been reduced to small-scattered settlements, some ruled by doomsday cults, others by those seeking a more peaceful, bucolic existence where everyone has an equal say and stake in the community’s survival, all of them linked to degrees great and small, by roving groups like the Travelling Symphony, a hodge-podge of classical musicians, Shakespearian actors and artitistically-minded refugees who are doing what they can do to keep the dark frontier of total dystopian anarchy from engulfing what little remains of civilisation.


Nathan Burton's arresting depiction of the comic book strip that gives the book its name (image via and (c) Nathan Burton Design / Picador)
Nathan Burton’s arresting depiction of the comic book strip that gives the book its name (image via and (c) Nathan Burton Design / Picador)


St. John Mandel manages to be both unrelentingly honest and austere about where we might end up – this is a world mind you in which small scratches can kill, food must be found and scrounged for, not bought, and things like security and peace of mind cannot be taken for granted – and yet hopeful that we will find a way through even a future this bleak and broken down future.

Humanity may be down but it is most certainly not out seems to be the message, one that you don’t find in many novels of this ilk where hopelessness is usually the order of the day.

Focusing on key characters who, through simple genetic quirk were resistant to a flu which killed, in 48 hours or less, 99.9% of all the people on earth, Station Eleven is a telling commentary and warning of sorts of what can happen when humanity blithely and wantonly fiddles-while-Rome-burns, its eyes fixed on celebrities, the gossip magazines that tell their “stories” and its growing interconnectedness that burgeons even as we retreat from even other in reality, not paying attention to a virus that tiptoes in and almost wipes us out, taking away from us in weeks what it took millennia to build.

“Jeevan’s understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand, he’d seen a lot of action movies.”

Ultimately what survives above all is humanity’s social connectivity, the very thing that has been reduced just before the apocalyptic turn of events into a parody of itself, a mass of “Likes”, tweets and knowledge of others formed less from direct interaction than an idea of what others might be like, and it is this innate propensity for connectivity, beautifully illustrated by survivors like one time paparazzo-turned-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhury, child actor-turned-grown up dystopian world actor Kirsten Raymonde and corporate psychologist Dr. Clark Thompson, all of whom are connected in one way or another to Arthur Leander, a famous actor who is the first to die on Canadian soil of the dread disease while performing in a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Connecting the past and present too is the hand drawn comic book series Station Eleven by Leander’s first wife Miranda, an exquisitely-beautiful rendering of life in a far off future where what is left of humanity is adrift on a planet-sized space station, spilt into two warring camps.

This labour of artistic love is both a symbol of the past, a microcosm of a dystopian world and a talisman of future hope, the idea that if something as fragile and impermanent as a few pages of paper can withstand the end of the world, then there is yet hope for humanity.

Evocative, emotionally-poignant and both darkly pessimistic and cautiously hopeful, poetically and arrestingly-written, Station Eleven is that rare beast on the dystopian landscape – a book that unflinchingly shows what might be lost, and retained in an apocalyptic future such as art, performance and the written word, but which also believes things can, and will, be saved, that humanity will find a way through, however imperfect.

It extols, throughout its engrossing length, the idea that the power of authentic, face-to-face social connections, the binding of people together, is the one thing that virulent disease, no matter how all-encompassing and destructive, will ever be able to completely kill off.




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