Review: “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel 



On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in mid-July, I dropped back the latest batch of books I had taken out from my local Pembroke Library and checked out “Station Eleven”, amongst a few other books. I gorged on it and finished it by early Sunday evening! It is a darkly futuristic novel Noire and serves as a warning to us that our existence is precarious. 99.9% of the world’s population is killed with a lethal dose of the Flu and the 0.1% are left to slowly pick up the pieces. Environmentally, we must change, or pay the inevitable consequences. The vehicle that Mandel employs for this message is a splendidly un-put-down-able thriller.  “Station Eleven” is “Mad Max” meets “28 Days Later”. Two of the main characters are Arthur and Clark in a neat homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001 A Space Odyssey”. In some regards, it is a paean to the “spectacular world” that we have created. Also, it is thoroughly refreshing to see so many female lead characters in a story.




I interpreted “Station Eleven” as much a homage to Art and History as about the wanton destruction of the world we have created. The book open as Arthur dies on-stage. He is performing in his play and passes away mid performance. His career passes into immortality as he dies. Death, Art, Life. There are frequent references to Shakespeare throughout. In the “New World,” as it is called, people are desperate to rekindle old culture. One of the most fascinating references to the Bard is when he is viewed as solely a writer of the pre-technological era, emphasising the concept of how timeless his work is. Writing with a simple pen and paper gleaned solely from the Earth, he uncovered plenty of deep truths about the human condition. There is a purity to his writing that lasts well into the New World. Considering him as pre technological is interesting. Creative Art has been stymied as life has become more comfortable.


Francois Diallo begins recording interviews with people in the New World and circulates a newspaper.  The study of history is a bedrock of how the new society begins to collectively regenerate itself, reminding us of how the initial printing press in the Fifteenth Century was a vehicle for social change resulting in the communication of ideas and concepts. The thought of mass communication not being possible is frightening and makes us ponder how far we have evolved.
Later, Elizabeth opines about the “moments (where) everyone thought the world was ending”. The human hypothesis has ingrained in us an innate theory of survival. When Clarke creates a Museum in Severn City Airport, it is further evidence of people finding it essential to chronicling our past in as much fastidious attention to detail as possible. Recording our story, be it scientific or otherwise, is crucial to our evolution.


When August and Kirsten get separated from the Travelling Symphony, “August searched for a TV guide or poetry”. This at a critical juncture when searching for food to survive would have been more important. Even in this perilous state, the people look for any vestige of the past to cling onto. The very notion of the Travelling Symphony, a band of musicians and poets travelling together in a world still rebuilding itself speaks volumes for the need for culture and Art in the New World.


The symbol of the paperweight is notable. Miranda and Kirsten both cherish and protect it. Arthur writes unrequited letters to an old friend in a throwback to a more simpler mode of communication in the past.  The wafer thin lines between Art, life and death are breached throughout, most specifically when Miranda is about to pass away, “She opened her eyes to see the sunrise. A wash of violent colour, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven”. Layered in the adherent pulchritude of Mandel’s prose is the notion of Miranda being unable to differentiate between her own artistic creation and real life. This is similar to when Arthur dies.


The comic book Station Eleven is of emblematic consequence throughout. Dr Eleven is the rationale for the Prophet’s violence in the new era.


The most interesting design in “Station Eleven” is contained in the tattoo Kirsten has on her arm, “because survival is insufficient”. The slogan surfaces on countless occasions and it is captivating to reflect on. If history is an attempt, however vain and biased, to evaluate our previous actions as a species, then what is Art? It is a vital, genetic urge, dating back as far as we can record in human history, to communicate with each other. Art is history.


Take it further. Art was critical to our evolution as a Species. In its most constituent sense, it was a building block on which we critiqued the way we lived as a species. If this is true, and I believe it is indisputable, then Art should be seen as a pillar of evolution itself. A form of language, a fundamental mode of communication between us that permits us to learn, change, grow and evolve. This is the central concept in “Station Eleven”. It is not just enough to survive.


Celebrity Culture:


Jeevan desperately hounds Miranda after a late night. She reveals some humanity by talking to him, which is slammed back in her face when he photographs her in a vulnerable state. Maybe this leads him to conclude that “the whole entertainment journalist idea thing had been a mistake”.


In other parts of the novel, the paparazzi are described as “fucking parasites”. Yet, there is one sense in which the whole image of this culture might just be worthwhile. In the New World, celebrity gossip magazines are used as valuable historical artefacts to evaluate how we lived.  In the airport at the beginning of the New World, a couple irritate Clark by desiring to Tweet about being with Arthur Leander’s kid. This when their very survival is in jeopardy.




“Station Eleven” is a first rate, post-apocalyptic future Noire thriller that reads like a sharp jolt of electricity. Never have we have it so good and yet we are absolutely hell-bent on the anthropogenic annihilation of our planet. Peering into our doomed future has immediate lessons for our present. As Elizabeth says to Arthur in the airport: “Are we supposed to believe that civilisation has just come to an end?” to which he responds “Well…it was always a little fragile wouldn’t you say?” Quite.


About Mick Gilbride

Aside | This entry was posted in Art, Book, Book review, Books, Canada, Celebrity Culture, Destruction of the species, Emily St John Mandel, Environment, History, music, Post Apocalytic, Station Eleven, The Flu, Trying to make sense of it all and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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