Monday, January 19, 2015

Station Eleven - a Review (With Spoilers!)

Warning: plot spoilers ahead...

It's funny. Sometimes, the films and books I enjoy the most are the ones that I initially approached with hesitancy or ambivalence. Having recently finished the second book in a row for our book club that I found merely mildly entertaining, I had no real hopes for Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which I had not even heard of prior to the suggestion by one of our club members. With no expectations in mind, I skimmed the comments on the back cover and inside flap, but they didn't give much away. Thus, I started reading with almost no information about the book, its author, or even its genre. I knew it was post-apocalyptic, but was it dystopian? Was it similar to Cormac McCarthy's The Road? Would it feature a teen love story as depicted in both The Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent series? I had several post-apocalyptic stories in mind as I began to read; boy was I surprised to find one that was different!

Typically, authors envision the worst of humanity following a calamity on a scale large enough to restructure governments and whole societies. Rape, murder, cannibalism, slavery systems, and a totalitarian government are often the hallmarks of such narratives. Readers can learn much about human nature by exploring these texts. After all, evidence abounds that parts of both Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, though different, are simultaneously coming to fruition. Are we being watched by Big Brother? Check. Are our thoughts manipulated by an omnipresent media? Check. Are we distracted from the more serious issues by entertainment? Check. I've always admired SF (science fiction) writers' ability to assess the human condition and shed light on the best and worst of us by placing characters in extreme conditions. In many of the greats, this ability to gauge people results in prophetic views of the future. Not convinced? Research how many inventions and world events Jules Verne envisaged.

The future that Emily St. John Mandel proposes following the effects of a new super-flu in Station Eleven offers a different potential for a post-apocalyptic world (at least in North America). While she provides clear indications of chaos and crime at the outset of the epidemic - when people are the most frightened and desperate - Mandel also reminds readers that people are inherently social. We rely on each other for strength, resources, companionship, and survival. While villains like the Prophet take advantage of the lack of law enforcement, others are willing to do the right thing, to stand up to tyranny, and to help others despite personal risk. Mandel's future is largely optimistic. Characters believe that order and civilization will be restored, and they work to keep civilization alive by sharing music and Shakespeare in the interim. They believe that city lights will once again illuminate the night sky, and meanwhile, they look to the stars.

I would love to think that any community that suddenly discovered itself comprised of survivors of a catastrophic event would band together, divide duties based on skill, find food and shelter for everyone, and set up its own set of governing rules. Anyone who's read Lord of the Flies knows how important these steps are. I would also hope that kindness and compassion were the rule, and not the exception. Both Mandel's Travelling Symphony and her airport residents offer believable models for how collaboration could exist in a ruined world. People get on each other's nerves, sure, but they work together anyway to ensure survival. Isn't this just a microcosm of what we should be doing anyway? However, a carefully selected quote from Star Trek: Voyager (incidentally, another optimistic SF vision in which humanity is explored under conditions of duress) states that "survival is insufficient." I will leave it to fellow readers to explore the complexities and truth in that phrase, both in the context of the novel and without, for it is profoundly true.

Just one more note on Mandel's writing style (I know my blog posts are always too long): It is difficult to weave non-linear bits of storyline together seamlessly in a way that not only makes sense but also adds to the enjoyment and meaning of a text. In Station Eleven, Mandel has done both. I absolutely adore this book, and I look forward to reading it again to pick up the gems I failed to notice during my first read-through. Please share your thoughts on this book below once you've had the opportunity to read or reread it.

1 comment:

  1. Your review is an example of why we read. As I commented on Amy's post at "Station Eleven," I respected this book more than I loved it. I respected the beauty of the author's craft, the skill with which she wove together seemingly disparate stories and made them cohesive, her turn of a phrase that captivated and clarified. All that being said, the genre just wasn't my thing. That doesn't mean I didn't appreciate it, though.

    But what was really the pay-off for me was sitting in book club and hearing two dear friends talk about how much THEY loved it. I was able to share the love for the book via my friends who truly did fall in love with it. I was able to participate in the discussion and connected with others because I had read it. (And again, I was pulled along by the beautiful writing; it was in no way drudgery.) What a gift. If I had opted out of the book simply because the genre didn't appeal to me, I would have missed out.

    I think it's important as teachers of reading and writing to remember that our taste doesn't dictate excellence! Just because it wasn't among my favorite books of all times doesn't mean that I can't appreciate its value. From a literary standpoint, it is gorgeous and deep and deft. If we (teachers) don't take risks as readers, then how can we expect our kids to do the same? Sometimes it will pay off. Sometimes it won't. But until we venture out, we will miss out on opportunities to connect with those around us, participate in meaningful discussion and completely be void of the ability to see value in things (or PEOPLE) that/whom we don't necessarily agree with or like. How awful would it be if we only saw value in things (or people) who fit our own specifications?