A Thinking Person’s Apocalypse

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

This is a very fashionable book. For example, it deals with a worldwide apocalypse (viral in this case) and its aftermath, which is nothing if not fashionable these days. It also has a character list of exemplary diversity, such as no single person’s circle of acquaintance is likely to reflect. These are authorial choices with more than a hint of market-consciousness to them. Being fashionable, however, does not prevent a book from also being good. Is Station Eleven a good book? It’s not a bad book. It’s by no means a great one. The prose (which smells suspiciously of MFA programs and writers’ workshops) is inoffensive if rarely interesting. Mandel creates suspense and doles out her horrors with some skill. Her characters, however, I found generally uncompelling. The figure of the “prophet” is especially weak. The book touches – but barely touches – on several interesting questions about the nature and value of art in an age of brutal necessity, and on the philosophical issues involved in the annihilation of 99% of the world’s population. Published reviews of Station Eleven will tell you that Mandel’s apocalypse is more reflective than those we’re used to nowadays. I’m afraid I disagree. For all its fireworks and brutality, The Walking Dead has more depth to it. In this reader’s opinion, if you want an atypical apocalypse novel that deals thoughtfully with the questions it raises, open a copy of Canticle for Liebowitz or, even better, Watership Down.

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