A quick Google search reveals that I am late to the party—very late. There are seemingly hundreds of reviews of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) available online. From the most regarded newspapers to Joe Blow’s SF Nook, everyone has an opinion of the novel—many raving. Moving in that direction, this review may be more of a review of reviews as much as a review in itself, the novel’s import captured in the offing.
There are schools of thought that believe a reader/reviewer may interpret a novel/poem/story/etc. however they like. The writer has written something, put it into the public arena, and there it is the right of anyone who encounters it to perceive what they will. While I think the general idea of this concept is something to support, it quickly crumbles anytime someone attempts to examine the deep psycho-social quandaries and post-modern angst of a Clive Cussler novel, for example. There are limits, and those limits are most often dictated by what is actually on the page.
One of the things I enjoy while reading is puzzling out a novel’s aim or agenda. In other words, I don’t fully buy into the idea a reader can interpret a text any which way they like and be “correct”. The interpretation must be supported with evidence. It can’t just be an emotional reaction to superficial elements or an under-informed view that missed a significant facet to the text. The words and ideas are placed intentionally on the page, and while everyone perceives them differently, they do not change. Writers write with purpose, from political agendas to commercial aims, and almost always of a very limited number. This means we readers have specific targets to work toward interpreting novels.
This is all a long winded way of saying that there is much of the content I’ve read online regarding Station Eleven that seems rather abstract from the novel I read. There are genre readers who, taking some offence at a non-sf writer utilizing “their” tropes for literary effect (e.g. as what happened with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), have gone through the text with not only a fine-toothed comb, but also a rather blindered view to science fiction’s place in literature as a whole. There are also genre readers who, having been steeped in years of mainstream fiction, don’t recognize subtext when it hits them on the head. Most sf superficial, examining a text deeper than space ships and blasters, aliens and sex is not in their repertoire of tools, and as a result, I think many reviews I’ve read are off-point to some degree or another.
Kirkus reviewer Thea James feels Station Eleven’s unifying theme is how “everyone and everything are connected.” While certain characters and elements of the text are indeed interconnected, the reviewer has in fact identified a writing technique, i.e. something that unified the story to create a cohesive narrative, that is, rather than a lighthouse guiding the story through the stormy seas of drama toward that grand idea of “theme”.
The Sunday Book Review believes that the novel is trying to offer hope for survival through the power of art. They ask: “Survival may indeed be insufficient, but does it follow that our love of art can save us?” Really? The book can be siphoned through such a trite funnel? What about the religious cult—a much better point to start making criticisms of the novel? What about the storyline of the embedded novel, or as it actually is, the embedded graphic novel from which the book takes its title? And, most importantly, what about the Museum of Civilization that features so prominently? The power of art…pbbbbbt.
Tomcat in the Red Room and others critique the novel for falling short “in its descriptions and its worldbuilding” and “failing to evoke that sense of wonder-at-emptiness that’s characteristic of the best post-apocalyptic fiction.” Knock, knock. Hello. Just because a writer chooses to use post-apocalyptic elements does not mean they are trying to create the ultimate human wasteland. If you want post-ap nihilism, read Bacigalupi. The post-ap element of Station Eleven, again, is a literary device that allows the comparison and contrast of what we think of as “civilization” today to the post-pandemic version presented in the novel. Another way to approach this criticism would be to ask: is it necessary for every author who wants to use some aspect of a post-apocalypse to create ‘wonder-at-emptiness’? The answer is obvious, thus I can’t help but think the recent spate of post-ap fiction and its mob-like attempt at creating that ultimate human wasteland have affected the way we think about novels which feature such settings. It’s as if we’ve been trained to expect body counts, devolution to animal savagery, and complete anarchy. Nobody, as far as I know, critiqued George Stewart for drinking Post-Ap Lite in Earth Abides. (If you havn’t read the novel, Stewart’s is a very similar, very bucolic version of the world after a catastrophe.)
Getting closer to the prize is Fantasy Book Review who, in the sub-header of their review, write: “I could hardly put it down. This is a story that engages you with ideas on existentialism.” Though moving in the right direction, again I think this giving credit to technique rather than theme. What the reviewer has perceived as ‘existentialism’ I see as just damn good characterization—one very important step to the grander agenda of the novel. Arthur, Miranda, Kristin—all of the characters are rendered in full 3D. We get the details of their outer world as much as their inner, creating complete portraits of people, yes, dealing with this thing we call life, but in a particular context, and with particular results to their situations, which taken as a whole complement the other ideas under discussion. It is at this point the real theme of Station Eleven can be found.
Not just art. Not just survival. Not just existentialism or that religion can be a plague in itself. The real theme of Station Eleven is the awakening to, awareness of, and subsequent appreciation of the so-called important things to society. This is a broad statement, and indeed Mandel covers everything from family and friends to art and technology. While I would chasten Mandel for not digging too deeply into the negative aspects of technology, all else receives full representation through individual perception: before the pandemic and after. Some characters are able to come to terms with the things they should be focusing on but aren’t before the Georgian flu strikes, e.g. Arthur and Miranda. But for most it takes the apocalyptic event to re-contextualize their lives—to find deeper meaning and appreciation of the things Western affluence takes for granted—easy communication, flight, availability of information, family and friends close by, law and order, etc., etc.
For this, the Museum of Civilization may be the center piece of Station Eleven. At a crossroads both socially and technologically, it’s in the Skymiles lounge of a Michigan airport that many of the characters come to terms with their situation when viewing humanity’s artifacts. Regardless how unrealistic some sf fans decry the museum to be, its myriad collection of random bits and pieces of the 20 th and 21 st centuries are both a reminder of the past and hope for a renewed future that humanity is not just a dirt circus, but a causal chain that has achieved something tangible in its few thousand years of playing in the sandbox of knowledge. Kristin and the traveling symphony may keep alive one key aspect of civilized society, but their destination in the novel is the Museum. Regardless whether the reader believes the novel possesses a paucity of anarchy, its symbolism transcends setting.