Station Eleven

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Subgenre: Post-apocalyptic, Slipstream

Back in August I listed Station Eleven as one of our featured book releases for the month of September. Since then it’s made the Goodreads Choice Awards Final Round… in Fiction, not Science Fiction. I think that sums up my reaction to it: good, but not really what I was expecting for something that was initially marketed toward the Speculative Fiction crowd.

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

Setting

Characters

Plot

Writing Mechanics

Genre

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.

Undercity

Author: Catherine Asaro

Series: Bhajaan #1 ( Skolian Empire #7 )

Subgenre: Science Fiction

Undercity is the first in a new series by Catherine Asaro, which follows the travails of Bhaajan, a semi-retired military officer turned private investigator. While I have no familiarity with the larger world in which this book takes place, it didn’t feel necessary as the scale of the story was quote tightly focused. An interesting protagonist with a creative story, but which felt a little unfocused plot-wise in direct opposition to the tight focus of the setting and characters. An enjoyable enough tale for what it was, but suffering a little from trying to do too many things and doing none of them as well as it could.

BOOK ONE IN A BRAND NEW SERIES by Nebula and Hugo Award Winner Catherine Asaro set in the world of her Skolian Empire universe. In the galaxy-spanning future, Major Bhaajan is a tough female P.I. who works the dangerous streets of Undercity.

Major Bhaajan, a former military officer with Imperial Space Command, is now a hard-bitten P.I. with a load of baggage to deal with, and clients with woes sometimes personal, sometimes galaxy-shattering, and sometimes both. Bhaajan must sift through the shadows of dark and dangerous Undercity—the enormous capital of a vast star empire—to find answers.

The Speculative Post's Review

Setting

Characters

Plot

Writing Mechanics

Genre

To start, I’d like to express a slight pet peeve of mine present in this book. When a publisher is putting together a blurb to put on the back cover/jacket liner, maybe put some effort into not just making it blatantly wrong in several places? Major Bhaajan does not ‘work the dangerous streets of Undercity.’ As a major character point, she has done her level best to never go there and is essentially forced to by circumstances beyond her ability to resist. Nor is Undercity the enormous capital of anything. It’s a tiny little slum UNDER the enormous capital etc etc. It feels a little akin to describing London as ‘The Underground’ or New York as ‘The Sewers.’ Come on guys, you can pique our interest without just making crap up! It’s not the worst case I’ve seen of this, but it is still annoying to go into a book thinking something and then finding out that whether out of laziness, incompetence or some idea of withholding information for surprise, you’ve just been told things which weren’t true. Anyways, off to this great start, let’s move on to the meat of the story itself.

Or rather, the stories themselves. Undercity feels more like three short stories than one novel. Major Bhaajan has a case, that case leads into another job, which leads into some sociopolitical action on her part. None of these stories really refer back to the rest of the book; they just sort of segue one into the other. This isn’t necessarily bad on its own, but it made all three stories feel very rushed. This is only a 270 page book, and 90 pages isn’t enough to do these stories justice. Asaro really is a good storyteller, and what shallow take we get on the stories is well put-together, in spite of the feeling that there was a checklist which needed shoehorning into the novel no matter how it had to get in there.

This of course creates the problem that Asaro has lost focus. What is this novel about? There are these abrupt 180s happening in the narrative which are decidedly jarring. No sooner does she complete her original mission then suddenly *pow* this has revealed a new distressing development you need to drop everything and focus solely on. Oh, you’ve got that dealt with? Here’s another totally different thing. I know these would be three novels normally but we’re in a rush. Honestly it feels a little like playing an MMO. You’ve finished the quest to kill 5 bears? All right, now go put out some fires while also picking flowers. Done that? Great, dig some trenches. It loses a lot of flow, which really is tragic because each section was a perfectly interesting story in itself.

The other strange effect of structuring the story in this way is that it leaves us with a bit of a ‘so now what?’ feeling. All three of these plotlines have pretty neatly closed themselves off. There’s not much more to do since the ending of each was allowed to be so abrupt. If each had been played out for 200 pages, the denouement could have been interesting and added quite a lot to the story. Instead, since it feels more like Bhaajan turns in her quest and picks up a new one, going back to them wouldn’t really work. There were some significant sociopolitical and philosophical elements to these plotlines that I would really have enjoyed digging deeper into. Some far-reaching consequences could have fallen out of the way things went down, but instead it feels like when next we meet Bhaajan, she’ll just be on a ship off to somewhere totally different. Not really a bad thing, so much as a missed opportunity.

I think that’s really the overriding point of this review: This could have been two or even three really good novels. Asaro has created a compelling world, even if we get only tangential glimpses of it in this book. Bhaajan is a great protagonist. She has depth and a history and motives underpinning her actions. The culture of the Undercity is compelling and I’d love to see more of what goes on there as well, but the way that Undercity was sort of dashing through on its way to other things was a little off-putting. I still enjoyed Undercity and look forward to future installments, but I hope Catherine Asaro realises the great character and setup she’s got here, and just slows down a little and focuses more on Bhaajan than the plot events swirling around her.

Dan was given an Advanced Review Copy of this book by Baen Books via NetGalley



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