You’ve probably already heard about Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven by now. It’s been nominated or won a bunch of awards since it came out in 2014. It’s also the first book my Guys Read book club chose where most of the guys said there was already a copy in their house or on their Kindle because their partner had already read it. MY partner was chapped at me because she wanted to read my copy but I had to tell her I’d gotten it on audio from the library.
I loved the audio by the way. The narrator (Kirsten Potter) and Mandel’s wonderful prose style were a perfect fit.
There is some debate as to whether this is a “science fiction” novel or a “literary” novel or what. I don’t get that worked up about those kind of definitions. It’s definitely on the literary side of science fiction meaning the post apocalyptic world it describes is not the author’s main obsession. She’s really writing about our life today by basically taking it away.
It begins with a famous actor colapsing onstage at a theatrical production of King Lear. Like Lear’s actions at the beginning of the play send ripples out that affect all the other characters, Leander is the connection the main characters in the novel have to the story.
There is the EMT in training (and former paparazzo) Jeevan who leaps onstage to perform CPR. There’s the child actress who witnesses the event. There’s the many ex-wives. There’s the best friend.
Jeevan becomes the one who learns from a friend in an ER, on his walk home from the terrible evening, that a planeload of superflu-infected patients have landed at the airport and have all come to hospitals in the area and that this is the Big One. He should get out of the city.
After only a few weeks, the world is a different place. Civilization as we know it has basically collapsed. The novel then jumps forward and backward in time. Jeevan is a paparazzo photographing Leander’s soon-to-be first ex wife, Miranda. Miranda has been working for years on a meditative self-published comic about a “Dr. Eleven.” Leander gives copies of the comics to the young actress, Kirsten. Leander’s best friend, Clarke, happens to board a plane on which another ex-wife, Elizabeth is riding with her son. Their plane is diverted to a small airport near Lake Michigan. All of these characters survive the collapse and the world is built through their eyes at differnt points in time.
The time and character shifts are similar to David Mitchell if you’ve read Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks. The meditations on the world as it was and as it has become remind me more of Canticle for Liebowitz than The Stand.
For a post-apocalyptic collapse with some terrible things happening, there is also a lot of beauty. The stars, as the cover implies, are amazing without light pollution.
One of my favorite themes includes the Travelling Symphony. Years after the collapse, Kirsten is in a travelling troups of musicians and actors who make a two year circuit around some of the Great Lakes area (the novel and characters are forever traveling between Canada and the US). They stop at towns and villages to perform classical music and Shakespeare. On the side of their caravan and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line she latched onto when one of the members was telling the stories of Star Trek: Voyager episodes (of all things!) around the campfire. “Survival is Insufficient.” It becomes their motto and, in many ways, the theme of the novel.
One town they come back to, hoping to meet some members of the Travelling Symphony who had stayed behind to have a baby, has been taken over by a crazed prophet who continues to haunt them even after they leave.
There is some amazing imagery in the book. On the last day of civilazation, stranded in the municipal airport, Clarke witnesses one last plane land, slowly taxi to a far corner and stop. The doors never open. Ever. Periodically, thoughout the book and over many years, he’ll look out there and think about that last plane and what might be inside. But no one ever opens it. That plane is wedged into my subconcious now. Freaks me out.
So this is a post civilisation world but without too much of the horror. No zombies or nuclear fallout or roving Mad Max-style bands of roving crazies. The only crazies are the usual kind we deal with now. Religious nuts, etc. I mean everyone seems to have a general feeling of PTSD, especially the ones who lived in our time. The ones born into the new reality haven’t known anything else.
It’s a bit slow at first, but things definately start coming together in the second half. Some people I’ve talked to thought it was wrapped up too nicely. Others felt there were too many things left open. I personally found it hit just about the right balance as far as that is concerned.
What I got out of it was a sincere appreciation of everything. I ate an orange and was like, “Wow, I can eat one of these whenever I want.” I was stuck waiting for the big tanker truck at the gas station and wasn’t even mad. “I live in a world where big tanker trucks just bring us gas! It’s amazing!” So yeah, I guess it got to me. In a good way.