Last month I put out an appeal here and via Twitter for recommendations of books that would help me break through my aversion to science fiction. One book was mentioned over and over again: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I’m not going to promise that this book has made be a sci-fi convert but if this is a taste of what’s available then I can certainly see me reading more in that line in the future.
Usually when I hear a novel is set in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic world, my reaction is akin to that of encountering the most fetid smell possible. But Mandel’s imagined world, while disintegrated, degraded and thoroughly unpleasant, is recognisable enough for me to feel it could still be real. The characters’ names for one thing are largely realistic — admittedly one of them is called Jeevan which is not a name I’ve ever heard of before, but you can’t get much more down to earth than Arthur and Clark. The locations are also real with most of the action taking place in Toronto, Chicago and the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan. And then the opening scene takes me to a very familiar experience, that of being in the theatre watching a performance of King Lear. The combination of those realities made it possible for me to accept the disruptive elements of Station Eleven more readily.
Mantel begins with a personal tragedy. Part way through a performance of King Lear, the renowned Hollywood actor Arthur Leander collapses. Despite the efforts of Jeevan, a trainee paramedic, and a cardiologist, both of whom who were in the audience, he dies. Tragedy on a considerably vaster scale follows quickly via a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. The world, as they have come to know it, exists no more.
No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. … No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pick up.
As bleak as this sounds, Mantel can’t resist a touch of humour for the results of the lack of power is a world sans the Internet and social media:
… no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.
The narrative hops forward from Day 1 to Year 20 of the virus. The survivors have formed small settlements in abandoned towns and empty shopping malls and factories, forever fearful of armed bandits who roam the land.
Civilisation in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbours, lied and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm. These places didn’t go out of their way to welcome outsiders.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel for me was the way Mandel deals with individual responses to the calamity. Some hunker down in isolated properties living off whatever they can hunt; others take to religion and follow prophet-like figures bent on absolute power. Some never give up hope that out there, somewhere, something of normality survives. In Traverse City an inventor rigs up an electrical system to a stationary bicycle that when pedaled furiously could power a laptop and help him find the Internet. Over in Chicago pilots use their last fuel supplies for reconnaissance trips outside the city where they might find food and supplies. They never return. One of the more unusual responses comes in the form of The Travelling Symphony: a group of 20 or so musicians and actors in horse-drawn wagons who move between settlements staging concerts and theatrical performances wherever they stop. Why? The answer lies in the message painted on the side of their lead wagon: “Because Survival is Insufficient.”
For many of these people the past is recalled only in fragments. Kirsten, an actress with the symphony, was eight at the time of the outbreak. Her mother’s face has grown vague over the years but she remembers clearly the actor Arthur Leander because she was there, on stage with him, the night he died. She’s made a habit of collecting information about him that she finds in deserted houses during her travels. Photos with actresses outside restaurants, gossip column pieces about his repeated failed marriages and reviews of his films; all are kept safe in her zip-lock bag. Also in the bag are two issues of a comic-book series featuring a character called Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station after escaping an alien takeover of Earth.
A very different response to the past is shown by a survivor holed up in the airport. Clark Thompson, friend of Arthur Leander, begins collecting some of the items abandoned because in the new world order, they are useless. He discovers there is no end to the number of objects that had no practical purpose but people want to preserve nevertheless : credit cards; Nintendo consoles; drivers’ licences; passports; cellphones; laptops; car engines and a gleaming chrome motor cycle; even a pair of red stiletto heels. All become the basis for the Museum of Civilization, a museum of artefacts to teach people born into the new world, about the old world.
But what of the future? It would have been easy for Mandel to end the novel with a sense that the apocalypse is nearing its end. Too easy and far too neat a resolution. Instead she leaves us with a feeling that a major collapse might have crippled the world, but has not ruined it as long as there are people alive who retain hope:
If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain? Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side?
Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel. Published in 2014 it was long listed for the National Book Award.
About the author:
Emily St John Mandel was born in Canada. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband.
Why I read this book:
It was recommended by several book bloggers who have far more knowledge of science fiction than I possess. This was the first of their recommended authors that I could find in the local library.