Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Book: Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel, Emily St. John. 2014. Station 11. New York: Knopf

The title and the cover of this recent bestseller are a bit misleading. I imagined that Station 11 would be the last refuge of the pandemic survivors, in some bleak geographic corner. In fact (a minor spoiler) Station 11 actually features in a comic book drawn by one of the main characters, so it plays a metaphorical role in the story rather than a locational one.

The executive summary: This is a beautiful book. Beautiful writing, beautiful, meticulous plotting, just as with Miranda and the comic book over which she labors with such intensity in the book (there is surely some of the author in her), and a wonderfully (and originally) imagined post-pandemic future. I enjoyed this book a great deal.

Is the book science fiction? Emily St. John Mandel, who hails from British Columbia (there is some of that in the book too) does not normally write science fiction, so in that sense it is not. On the other hand, what else would you call a post-apocalyptic novel but that?  Moreover, there are some recognizable features from the science fiction world, particularly in the two heroines. Going back the other way, the book feels like literary fiction in a way that few science fiction books do. There is no real need to settle this debate I suppose, but in my mind I would code it as science fiction written by someone who usually does not write science fiction, though I am not sure just how much science fiction you have to write to cross the threshold - what about Margaret Atwood, for example?

In Lucifer's Hammer, the old (70s) post-apocalyptic novel about a meteor strike by classic hard science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle that I read (and re-read) in my teen years, the main characters spend a lot of time worrying about preserving scientific and technical knowledge. In this book, the main characters worry about preserving culture. It is an interesting difference, and perhaps another point to be added to the debate in the preceding paragraph.

Part of the action in the book takes place in a Skymiles Lounge (!), though what airline might have been associated with the Skymiles lounge is never mentioned, I assume for some lawyerly reason. Those bits made me nostalgic for travel.

Finally, the book is a good reminder that, in an important sense, as pandemics go, our present unwelcome guest, despite all the havoc it, and the policy responses to it, have caused, we are getting off reasonbly lightly. In the book's pandemic, 99 percent of people die, and die quickly. Things could be a lot worse.

Highly recommended if you are into post-apocalypse stories, and maybe even if you are not. I liked it well enough that I already purchased the author's new book, The Glass Hotel.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
I am pretty sure I bought this at Kramer Books in DC.


Ophira said...

Haven't yet read Station 11 (somehow!)... but here's another literary post-apocalyptic novel: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Recommended to me by the warm folks at Powell's on my one visit there several years ago, and indeed as poetic and lovely as such a novel can be.

econjeff said...

Thanks! I will check it out.