Station 11: A Book Review

Station 11 is a book with a bit of a buzz around it: written by a Canadian expat living in New York, it won the British-based Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel of 2014, but has been slow to find an audience in the US. I?ve just finally gotten to read it, and have some thoughts.

First and foremost, as others have said, don?t mistake this for a science fiction story. If you expect science fiction with all the tropes that implies, you?ll be disappointed. If you’re avoiding it because you’re worried it might be too science fiction-y, take a chance on this book. It does take place before and after a plague wipes out 99.999% of the world population, but it?s not a book about science fiction ideals, utopian or dystopian society. If anything it?s about malaise and learning to forget the good old days.

Is it a good story? Yes. Is it without its problems? No.

From here on, there are spoilers.

In many ways, I felt like I was re-reading The Stand, Stephen King?s end-of-the-world story where people walk and walk and walk, and along the way meet other people.

I was frustrated by the way that the survivors just accepted their lot and became scavengers unwilling to try to make sustainable lives anywhere. Why don?t they stop walking and camp in one of the many houses? Why does every house have broken windows? If the sheets from the hotels are still good, why aren’t the mattresses? Why the complete abandonment of electricity? Doesn?t anyone have a solar recharger? Wind, ever heard of it?

One thing that The Stand had that this story lacks is tension. There was a good and a bad presence, and the two sides were recruiting for a showdown. There?s none of that in this story, which is fine, but the author hints that it might go there, then doesn’t deliver. 

There?s also a lot of story that occurs off page.

How does the devout Christian boy Tyler become The Prophet? One day he wonders off with his mother, then ten or more years later he returns with an entourage and a commitment to violence and sexual slavery. His transformation might have been interesting. Why do they call him The Prophet? Why mention that his followers are heavily armed then have them so easily defeated? The other characters never really seemed in fear of him, nor did he come across as anything more than yet another in a series of threats to be overcome (most happening off page). Why was he so easily defeated if he?s the story?s ?big bad?? (Don’t tell me there was symbolism in the murder-suicide. It didn’t feel earned. One of my stories has a similar scenario and I’m working hard to make sure that it’s earned so the readers both embrace and are repelled by the event.)

If we?re going to spend a third of the book following someone who lives in a travelling symphony, wouldn?t it be nice if it was one of the important people? Maybe we could learn how this marvel came into being, maybe we could discover the trials and tribulations of being responsible for the well-being of the troupe. Or even why it keeps traveling. How does this traveling symphony survive winter? Are there towns with enough excess food as to be able to take them in (they certainly aren’t farming/harvesting their own food)?

Near the end of the book, we learn that a town south of the airport has rediscovered electricity. Now that might be an interesting story! Industrious people working to not just survive but rebuild! Does the book ever go there? No, even though in all probability The Prophet came through there on his way north and if we?d followed his story, we?d know part of that one too. By the end of the book, someone’s left to investigate it, but again, that’s story happening off-page.

Also, the symbolism was a bit heavy. The Undersea is limbo is the airport. We get it. The cloudy paperweight always went to people with uncertain futures. Yay. Shakespeare lived through a plague, now the plague survivors perform Shakespeare. Got it. The Prophet carves airplanes on people he’s kicked out of his paradise, like the quarantined “ghosts” on the Air Gradia flight. I get it, it just doesn’t resonate.

So what was good about this story?

  • The sense of loss. The author does a great job of showing people realizing just how much they have lost and coming to terms with it.
  • The sense of place. She describes Toronto vividly. The post-plague environment is usually written in very evocative prose although was oddly lacking in wolves, coyotes, bears, raccoons, and wild dogs (we are told that deer are plentiful, so their predators should be too. It’s human pressure that keeps those populations down).
  • The interlinked character studies – there are a handful of main characters (Kirsten, Clark, Arthur, and Miranda with, to a lessor extent, Jeevan and Tyler) who all crossed paths before the plague and who all cross paths or influence each other?s lives after the plague.
  • If you like stories where you don’t get all the answers (because that’s life), you’ll appreciate this one.

Final analysis: The book was enjoyable, if frustrating. I?m glad I’ve read it but I wouldn?t read it again. The author is a great observer and writer, I?m just not sure she?s a great storyteller. If you ever need an example of a writer who tells instead of shows, then you should point at this book. She made me care enough about the world she built to be annoyed at the stories she didn’t show within it.