Everyone I know has been praising Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, even Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin declared that it should’ve won the Hugo Award, so maybe I went into it with too high of expectations, but I don’t understand the praise.
Station Eleven is basically a post-apocalyptic tale, with most of it taking place after a virus swept the planet killing almost everyone. For those that lived, they left the cities during the virus and congregated in smaller communities around the country, turning places like abandoned gas stations, Walmarts, and airports into their homes. We see different communities in this story as we follow a traveling troupe of actors and musicians who wander from place to place to entertain them.
The post-apocalyptic part of the story was very interesting. Early on we see the virus and how it affects some characters and what they do to protect themselves. My favorite part is when we see one man buying everything from a small Toronto grocery store after a doctor friend tipped him off that this is the virus that will take us all out. It was fascinating to see his thought process and everything he buys to try to survive.
I also liked the small communities the traveling troupe visit and the different power structures at play, both with the traveling troupe and the communities. In the troupe some people are more important than others, with some referred to by the instrument they play rather than by name. And in some communities religious zealots take over and rule their followers with idiotic decrees. This all seemed believable and I would’ve loved to have explored more of these interactions between survivors.
But we don’t get more interactions because of all the unnecessary, boring flashbacks which ruin the momentum of the rest of the story.
The reason I hate the flashbacks so much is that they don’t seem to make much sense. Multiple survivors have flashbacks about their time, however brief, with an asshole actor who died before the virus wreaked its havoc. This actor cheated on his wives, treated a friend like shit, and was irrelevant to the story about the virus and the lives of the survivors post-virus, yet these are the flashbacks we get? I don’t have to like every character, I love a good villain, but this doesn’t seem to make sense, especially because often the characters that are thinking about him don’t really know him.
One of the women in the traveling troupe was in a play with this actor when she was young, though she didn’t seem to have much interaction with him, so why as a survivor does she find and collect trashy gossip magazine stories of him?
And the man who bought everything from the grocery store at the beginning of the virus was once a paparazzi who took pictures of this actor and his wives, so he only followed them from afar, yet he also thinks about this actor?
This story was just framed so weirdly. Why this actor? He didn’t play a big part in their lives, before or after the virus, yet that’s what they cling to? Sure, some of the flashbacks are from people who knew him more, but even then, what was the point? These flashbacks didn’t do much of anything for what these people are dealing with post-virus. I started skimming the sections of the book that were flashbacks about this actor because I didn’t care and it had no impact whatsoever on what I was reading.
Had this story been just about the survivors of the virus, or had their flashbacks actually meant something to their post-virus lives, then I would’ve been praising this book, too, but as it is, half of Station Eleven is great, the other half is an unnecessary bore.