An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, from the author of three highly acclaimed previous novels.
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
The Speculative Post's Review
If genre reading is like driving, romance aficionados drive exotic luxury cars. Not necessarily fast, just fully loaded with leather, heated seats, and a very smooth ride. Every once in a while they like going out on twisty, windy roads for a thrill. Mystery readers are drivers seeking cars that have every single piece of tech it’s possible to load into a car. If at this point it doesn’t have sensors to save you from rear ending someone, it’s not good enough. (Though there are some hold outs in the classic car club.) Reading an Adventure/Suspense novel is like going down the highway in a really nice sports car: a fast, exhilarating, breathless race to the end. General fiction is your family sedan, and it likely only goes whatever the posted speed limit. Now, Speculative Fiction novels aren’t cars. They’re motorcycles that you drive down on a crowded city highway at twenty over whatever everyone else is doing (which is likely thirty over the speed limit), weaving in and out of traffic without a helmet on. Put blankly: insane, potentially gruesome, and best for adrenaline junkies with no fear whatsoever. Why am I telling you this? Because Station Eleven is like a family sedan that does five over instead of just the speed limit, and claims it’s a motorcycle. Um. No.
Don’t get me wrong. Station Eleven is very specifically Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic. The entire novel revolves around an influenza pandemic that spreads rapidly and kills everyone who catches it. In the modern age of constant travel and crowded cities, the results are devastating. Countries collapse overnight, hospitals become death traps, roadblocks and closed airports make escape nigh impossible, the power goes out, and life as we know it ends. One of our plot lines follows Kirsten, a member of the Traveling Symphony, as she performs Shakespeare in a series of small towns huddled around the Great Lakes. She spends her free time looting the remains of civilization in search of clothes without patches and whatever supplies might have been left behind in the chaos of twenty years prior. In one of these small towns she runs across a religious cult, setting up the main conflict point in this part of the tale. Pure Speculative Fiction, I know, and I won’t argue. But this is only half the book.
The other half of the novel is a series of vignettes, almost Once Upon a Time style, looking at the life of Arthur Leander, a man who died the night before the world died. This half of the novel is not Speculative in a single sense; it is pure, unadulterated, literary fiction. Which is fine, that just wasn’t what I signed up for nor what I was looking for. Moreover, I didn’t find many of these vignettes to be very arresting. If it wasn’t for the fact that Station Eleven is beautifully written, and that I wanted to follow Kirsten around some more, I’m not sure that I would have finished this book.
In the end, I’m very conflicted. On one hand, this truly is a good book. Mandell has done an exquisite job here detailing the end of the world in a way that requires very little suspension of disbelief. Her characters mostly act believably, even if I didn’t find a great deal of sympathy for Arthur. In fact, it’s in Arthur himself that I lost my suspension of disbelief. Her grasp of the English language is beautiful, and she certainly has a very solid grasp of her craft. On the other hand: this book is so Slipstream that I’m almost loath to review it on Speculative Post. This is not a SF genre book, no matter how it’s marketed. I almost feel that as this book was coming out its publishers believed in it, but weren’t sure who its true audience was. I give them points for knowing that Station Eleven has an audience, I’m just unconvinced it’s the run-of-the-mill Science Fiction reader.
So if you’re looking for something out of the norm, Station Eleven might be just your cup of tea. But if you’re an adrenaline junkie who finds literary fiction a little too highbrow most of the time, I’d suggest you get back on your motorcycle and leave this ride alone.