Station Eleven

StationElevenHCUS2Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel
Published September 9, 2014
333 pages (hardcover)

There must be a reason The Walking Dead is the highest-rated show on TV. I’m sorry, but it’s certainly not because it’s particularly good. The acting is atrocious. The zombies are hilarious and inconsistent (I am flummoxed by the fact that these incredibly loud, moaning shufflers manage to sneak up on people so frequently). The wannabe-emotional storylines are laughable.

And yet . . . people LOVE this show.

There are lists galore to explain the show’s wild popularity. And they are all intellectually sound (like this one, which lists as its number one reason: “It rips away the bourgeois tea cozies and exposes the rotting meat underneath.”). According to these lists, people love it for its credibility (“Zombies do not exist, but ‘The Walking Dead’ makes you believe they could.”). They love it for its diversity (thank you, Glenn for being the sole-surviving Asian dude and a “model-minority”). And women, of course, love it because it “is missing one plot device on which so many other shows rely: rape.

As reliable as those lists seem, I think, perhaps, that they may be reading a little too far into things. Maybe TIME had it right when it stated simply that the reason The Walking Dead is so popular is because: “America loves dark.” We like people being forced to be survivalists (think: Survivor and Naked and Afraid). And we like post-apocalyptic hell (like The Road and The Hunger Games). Not to mention, we love guns and crossbows and gore and good guys facing off against bad guys (no examples necessary). Let’s face it: we like things that make us ask the following questions: What would I do in such a horrible situation? Would I survive? Would I be forced to kill? Would I be able to retain my sanity (let alone my humanity)?

This is as good an explanation as any as to why The Walking Dead is so popular. And it also explains why Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Station Eleven, has gotten so much hype. Station Eleven is a lot like The Walking Dead (except that there are no zombies): It is post-apocalyptic. There are guns and crossbows. There is a crazy, scary bad guy (who has lots of crazy, scary followers). And it is all about retaining your humanity and your will to survive in the face of horrible, terrible times.

The premise is this: a weird mutation of the swine flu sweeps the world, killing almost everyone in its wake. People who are symptomatic are dead within a few days. Before long, 99% of all people on Earth are dead. Soon thereafter, there is no power, no running water, and very little food. Abandoned cars clog the highways, many filled with the rotting corpses of people who died trying to escape flu-infested cities. Dangerous “ferals” roam the woods, small groups of survivors band together, and creepy doomsday cults run small towns.

Rating: 3/5

The book follows several people whose lives were peripherally interconnected before the flu.

  • There is Kirsten, who was only eight years old and a child actor when the flu hit. Now, in Year Twenty (post-flu), she is the sole remaining member of her family, and she travels from town to town with The Symphony, a band of roving musicians and actors who play music and put on plays for fellow survivors.
  • There is Clark, a former consultant, who was diverted to a small airport when the flu hit and has been living there, maintaining a museum of pre-flu artifacts (like iPhones and stilettos), ever since.
  • There is Jeevan, a paparazzo turned EMT, who now acts as a small-town doctor, helping the wounded without the benefit of antibiotics or anesthesia.

The story is told using split chronologies. You see what was important to people pre-flu and how little those things matter post-flu. From chapter to chapter, the book jumps from place to place and year to year. As the story goes on, you begin to understand how the characters are connected to each other. This unraveling is the best part of the book.

As a whole, the book is a little too jumpy and a little too convoluted. And the characters are not well developed (the book focuses on too many of them). But post-apocalyptic tales are fun. They’re dark. They’re terrifying. They seem vaguely possible. So, even when they’re not objectively the best stories or when they’re not executed flawlessly/brilliantly, they’re still subjectively enjoyable. That explains why TV shows like The Walking Dead are so popular and why people like this book so much.

The hype:

  • A 2014 National Book Award Finalist
  • An Amazon Best Book of the Month for September 2014
  • An Indie Next List pick for September 2014
  • A LibraryReads List selection for September 2014

Who should read it: If you are a die-hard The Walking Dead fan, and you love it for the characters and the drama and the will to survive (and not the zombies, particularly), then this is the book for you. Read it immediately.

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness (the second book in the All Souls Trilogy and sequel to A Discovery of Witches; an Amazon Best Book of the Month for July 2012)
  • We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler (the soon-to-be released novel from the author better known as his alter ego, Lemony Snickett)
  • The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (an Amazon Best Book of the month for December 2014 and an Indie Next List pick for December 2014 by the author of The Red Tent)
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