Pairing the Pages: Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) and The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)

August 20, 2015

Book images from Goodreads.
Whoever says that social media is a waste of time and brain cells is dead wrong, because I got my last two book recommendations straight from Twitter: Station Eleven from a "what to read next?" poll I posted in a fit of indecision and The Book of Strange New Things from the fact that I was reading Station Eleven.

At first blush, the only thing Station Eleven seems to have in common with The Book of Strange New Things is a spaceship, drawn into whimsical comic books in the former and carrying a Christian missionary to a faraway planet in the latter. Now that I've gotten through the 836-page bulk of both of them (with Strange New Things clocking in at 500, that chunkster), I can see Derek's point.

First, Station Eleven. The book follows a band of nomadic performers called the Traveling Symphony, drifting through the desolate landscape of what was once North America, long since ravaged by the Georgian flu virus. No one knows exactly how bad the outbreak was, but, judging from the number of other people they encounter on the road, the survivors can only assume they're in the minority. All the technologies of the old world (the Internet, electricity, transit more advanced than caravans pulled by horses) have long since failed, and anyone born more than twenty years ago couldn't say what an airplane in flight or a working television look like. All the Symphony has now is Shakespeare, fading recollections of the old world, and the stifling but vital company of each other.

The book jumps through time and among perspectives to tell the story of how this new world came to be, and many of the characters are linked in ways they would never imagine nor learn. Kirsten, one of the Symphony members, hunts in vain for more issues of a comic book given to her as a little girl, not knowing they were the pet project of a woman she would never know, the first ex-wife of a man Kirsten acted alongside in King Lear. Sullied with the grit of the post-apocalypse, the book ultimately tells a story about memory: what gets passed on, what does not, and the ways that both we as individuals and larger, uncontrollable forces determine that balance.

After Station Eleven, I barely drew a breath before jumping into The Book of Strange New Things. Pastor Peter Leigh is our aforementioned missionary on his way to the planet Oasis. He's been tasked with bringing the word of God to the native Oasans, and he could only be more thrilled if USIC (the mysterious organization heading the project) had approved his wife Bea to come with him. He promises to write her every day, but he is quickly swallowed by his new life: the cheery but emotionally flat USIC compound; the merciless atmosphere of Oasis; and his Oasan flock, so religiously devoted but personally impenetrable.

I must have been in doomsday mode post-Station Eleven, because I kept expecting something devastating or sinister to happen throughout Strange New Things. There are some dark aspects to the book, but not in an in-your-face flu pandemic kind of way. Letters from Bea detail disasters both big (cyclones and earthquakes) and small (broken windows and suffering friends), and her missives travel billions of miles through space to be read at her husband's leisure. Rather than a shifting perspective, we only get Peter's thoughts, further widening the gulf between him and Bea but thrusting the reader right up against the disintegration of faith—in ourselves, in each other, in our gods—when it's tested over impassable physical and emotional distances. The tragedy here was subtle but potent once I shifted my expectations.

Although the blooks are different in terms of setting and plot, their sentiments are remarkably similar: change comes to all of us, and we can't decide how or when. All we can choose is how we react to it when it does—what will we carry forward with us, and what will it mean where we're going?

I ate both of these books up, St. John Mandel's for her hauntingly beautiful sentences and Faber's for his ability to plunk me straight down in Oasis with nary a bump. I think the books appeal to different audiences, with Station Eleven leaning more post-apocalyptic and Strange New Things more sci-fi, but both are unmistakably (very, very good) literary fiction.

Have you read Station Eleven or The Book of Strange New Things? What similarities or differences did you notice?

You Might Also Like