Station Eleven: The Importance of Memory After The Apocalypse

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When Mr. AMB saw The Oyster Review’s selection of the “100 Best Books of the Decade So Far,” he said that the list consisted of “a handful of good [books], but mostly wankery.” Check out his review of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven to see whether he thinks this Oyster favorite falls into the “good” or “wankery” category.



Via Mr. AMB:

station elevenI’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic books and movies. I saw Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven recommended on many of the same lists that included The Martian, and I added it to my ever-growing list of “maybe” books, but I got wrapped up in other books and forgot about it. Then, in the span of a month, Station Eleven was listed by George R.R. Martin as the “best novel” of 2014 and it won The Millions’ Tournament of Books*, so it ended up back on my radar.

Superficially, the book bears a striking resemblance to Stephen King’s The Stand: over 99.9% of the world’s population is swiftly killed by an influenza pandemic, and thereafter the survivors are so widely dispersed, and so suspicious of one another — not least because so many survivors have either gone mad or are downright predatory — that even rudimentary interactions with strangers present a life-threatening challenge. And then there’s a charismatic and ruthless “prophet.”

But the similarities end there.

Like Martin says, “One could, I suppose, call it a post-apocolypse [sic] novel, and it is that, but all the usual tropes of that subgenre are missing here, and half the book is devoted to flashbacks to before the coming of the virus that wipes out the world, so it’s also a novel of character…”  The “flashbacks” show us both how the world before the collapse continues to have repercussions on the world thereafter,** and how skewed the characters’ priorities were in that world.

But there’s more than just flashbacks. In the post-apocalyptic present, more than a decade after, the characters struggle with the past, both the golden age before the collapse and the initial year or two after the collapse, during which life was so dangerous, uncertain, and painful that most of the characters have effectively erased it from their minds.

Age plays a big role there as well. Some of the characters are so young that they do not remember the time before the collapse, while others are at impressionable ages and have some memories, many of which they question, wondering if they’ve invented a different past. Then there are others with a crystal-clear recollection of the time before. The book thus also explores the role of memory in constructing a person’s identity and in forming social bonds, and the obligation people feel both to preserve their memories and to pass them on to the next generation.***

All in all, Station Eleven is one of the best post-apocalyptic books out there, and one of the best recently published books I’ve read.


* Winning the Tournament of Books was not, to me, a decisive factor in buying it. The Tournament of Books has always struck me as agenda-driven, with the judges trying harder to be “right” by picking the book more likely to win a subsequent prize than trying to actually guide readers to better books. I have tried to read several of the books that won the “ToB,” and I gave up reading more than one of them.

** As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Thank goodness I don’t have to pay for the privilege of quoting two lines from him.

***If you’re interested in how we preserve memories–and the collective “myth-making” that often results–3quarksdaily recently posted a combined analysis of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Avishai Margalit’s The Ethics of Memory.


  1. I have never much cared for post-apocalyptic books, and I am about to embark on reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but after that, I may give this a look!

    1. I don’t gravitate toward post-apocalyptic books either, but this one is now on my TBR list. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it (if you decide to pick it up).

  2. What a great review! This is a book I already want to read, but if I didn’t, I imagine I would now after reading the review. 🙂

  3. Just when I think a genre isn’t for me, I read a review that makes me think again.

    I read The Stand years ago and found it a little too macho. The supermarket sex was excruciating (in my opinion, of course). The only other post apocalyptic book I can remember reading (unless we’re counting zombies, which left me cold until I found World War Z), is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It certainly had something, but not enough to ever want to read it again. I love it when I finish a book and know I want to go back and start it again.

    Station Eleven sounds like a great read. How memory works is a particular fascination for me, so I appreciate the recommendations. And I love a character driven novel.

    When I’ve finished my current, astoundingly good read, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell), I might just pick up Station Eleven.

    Many thanks – I shall be back.

    1. You’ll probably like Station Eleven, it seems we have similar tastes. I loved all three of those — World War Z, The Road, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — but didn’t like The Stand. Sadly, I don’t like anything else by Cormac McCarthy (I swear The Road was written by someone else, it’s in a completely different style), and I wasn’t able to finish any of David Mitchell’s other books.

      If you’re looking to test the waters of new genres, you might want to try A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. It’s in the science fiction subgenre of “space opera,” where few people tread outside of hardcore science fiction and fantasy aficionados, and rightly not. A Fire Upon The Deep, however, is packed with interesting concepts and characters and a solid, swift plot. Still holds up more than 20 years after publication.

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