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.
Are there some genres you will never ever read because you know you’ll hate them? Or maybe some specific titles that will never find room in your bookcases for the same reason (yes Moby Dick, I’m looking at you!) . If the answer to either – or both – of these questions is a YES, then an opinion piece published recently in the New York Times might make you rethink your ideas.
In “Why You Should Read the Books You Hate” NYT Book Review editor Pamela Paul argues that confining your reading to those books you think you’ll appreciate and enjoy is a mistake. Her own experience has shown that it’s not until you tackle the texts written in a style you usually find difficult or about subjects and issues that you find hard to grasp, that you’ll gain the skills to be a better, more thoughtful, more knowledgeable reader.
It was only by burrowing through books that I hated, books that provoked feelings of outrage and indignation, that I truly learned how to read.
Reading ‘hated’ books, claims Pamela Paul, will challenge you to think more deeply about why certain kinds of books make you feel uncomfortable. Is it the style, the story line or a particular argument? If the latter, the more you think about why you disagree with that point of view and gather supporting evidence in your mind, the more actively you’ll engage with the text.
Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas.
You may may even think of chasing down other texts dealing with similar issues. You’ll end as a more thoughtful, more considered reader than one who gets the end of a book thinking simply “I enjoyed that/I didn’t enjoy that” but not being able months later to recall much of what you read.
Her challenge to readers is to put aside preconceived ideas by delving into a ‘hated’ book:
Pick up a book you’re pretty sure you won’t like — the style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page.
This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.
Until I saw that comment that the idea is not to deliberately read a ‘bad book’ I wasn’t convinced by her arguement. When I have so many books on my shelves that I know I will enjoy why waste my time on something that doesn’t bring any pleasure.
After a day or so reflection I can see that her suggestion makes more sense now particularly when I think about my own reading prejudices – you will never find me reading a science fiction book for example. Over the years I’ve convinced myself that I do not enjoy this kind of fiction so I never go anywhere near that section of the bookshop or the library. And yet in my teens I did read science fiction; maybe not to the same extent as I read historical fiction but I did enjoy Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 Space Odyssey and a number of John Wyndham’s novels. More recently, despite feelings of trepidation I did actually enjoy Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve more recently. Which means that I can’t be as averse to science fiction as I thought. I’ve just built up this notion that I won’t like these books but I can’t explain why. except that I prefer novels about real people and realistic events. And yet people who read science fiction tell me constantly that the plots and themes found in the best of these novels are convincing and the characters are authentic. Perhaps my aversion stems instead from my incomprehension of a lot of scientific principles – in other words if I can’t understand what is being written about, how can I possibly enjoy it?
Maybe the time has come to slay this particular dragon of mine by following Pamela Paul’s advice. Reading some of the best examples from this genre will at least help me understand some of the characteristics and the styles employed by authors to create parallel universes or scientific and technological innovations.
My difficulty is knowing where to start. There seem to be a multitude of sub genres from dystopian to science fantasy (or is that a genre of its own?). And of course a whole clutch of authors. Many of those on the list created by Forbidden Planet of Top 50 Science Fiction novels I don’t even recognise. There are others whose names I recognise but thats as much as I can tell you about them. So do I go for Ursula le Guin or Diana Wynne Jones; Margaret Atwood or Iain Banks? Or do I go back to the classics with Asimov and co? I need your suggestions please – just bear in mind I’m a beginner so go gently on me and ease me in…..
|Would you read ‘hated’ books?
Are there some genres or authors that fall into the category of ‘hated books’ for you? What do you think of the idea of pushing yourself to read some of them? Do leave a comment here about your reactions to Pamela Paul’s opinion piece.
What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why?
That was the question posed as this month’s meme over on the Classics Club. The fact it’s taken me practically all month to think of an answer is a clue to how much this question taxed my brain. My first answer was ‘nothing really’ on the basis that I’ll give anything a go (except maybe science fantasy). But as Lear told Cordelia “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again” so I pushed myself to give the question deeper consideration.
After much cogitation I decided that there were three categories or types of books which I would approach with a degree of trepidation:
English medieval literature. A friend at university took this as her degree subject so I got to see some of her books. Until then I thought Chaucer was hard enough to read. But then she introduced me to Piers the Ploughman and Beowulf. I decided on the spot that I really didn’t want to have to learn another language just to read literature.
Books in local dialect This is in similar vein to my comment around medieval literature. Books that make very heavy use of dialect are hard to read and enjoy. I have a copy of James Kelman’s ‘How late it was, How late‘ sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read along with all the other Booker prize winners I have challenged myself to read. It’s a classic in its own way – stream of consciousness novel written in working class Glaswegian accent (note of explanation for my non British readers – this accent comes from the city of Glasgow in Scotland and is a particularly difficult accent to understand). I suspect it will linger on the shelves until I have nothing else left on the list to read….
Scientific plots My final category are novels that contain a heavy emphasis on science. I was never much use at science at school. I have only the vaguest of notions of chemistry or physics. Quiz questions that ask for the names of elements, planets and stars, or the genus of various plants and animals have me baffled. So any novel that involves scientists or scientific theory would not be one I would open with glee. Hence why I have never read any of those science fiction classics by Asimov , H G Wells or Huxley.
I wouldn’t ignore any of these categories, they just wouldn’t be the ones I would open with relish.