Station Eleven

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Thanksgiving laziness came upon me early. No not laziness exactly because I have managed to finish two books I was in the middle of and get to the halfway mark of another book I had not even begun until Wednesday and that I need to finish by Sunday so I can return it to the library Monday. Plus there has been a couple inches of snow to shovel and the coldest Thanksgiving in 29 years to eat my way through. And Waldo and Dickens have been piling on top of me and oh, the mean looks they shoot at me should I dare to move! But enough excuses, let’s get to one of those books I finished reading.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel has been getting lots of buzz in the U.S. and in blogland. As a post-apocalypse novel it falls into the genre of science fiction which made it the first science fiction novel to make it to the shortlist of the National Book Awards. It didn’t win, but that’s ok.

To say that Station Eleven is a post-apocalypse novel will likely give you some immediate assumptions. While civilization as we know it has come to an end due to a global epidemic of a highly contagious and fast acting strain of swine flu that kills around 90% of the world’s population, this is no doom and gloom story. It is not The Road or Oryx and Crake or Mad Max. It is a more hopeful book than that and in some ways feels truer because of it, though it could only be wishful thinking on my part.

The focus of the book is on the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel in a horse-drawn caravan along a fairly regular route on the coast of Lake Michigan in what used to be the state of Michigan. On the lead caravan is painted a quote from Star Trek Voyager: “Because survival is insufficient.” It is the Symphony’s motto and it keeps them going through the worst of times. Along with the music, the actors perform Shakespeare plays. Early on they had tried to perform other plays but everywhere they went people preferred Shakespeare so now that is all they do. The world, however, is not completely safe. The Symphony travels armed, with scouts fore and aft, and sets guards around their camp in the evenings.

The book begins in an undated present with the famous actor Arthur Leander playing Lear on stage in Toronto. In the second half of the play he collapses and dies on stage from a heart attack. There were three young girls in the play acting as hallucinatory visions of Lear’s daughters are children. One of those girls, Kirsten aged eight, had befriended Arthur. She survives the flu epidemic and ends up with the Symphony. Much of the post-flu story belongs to Kirsten, but other stories are woven in as well.

Pre-flu, the story belongs mostly to Arthur Leander, his acting career, his three wives, his best friend Clark. It is Arthur and the lives he touched that spin out the story both pre and post flu. The book moves back and forth in time between Arthur pre-epidemic and Kirsten twenty years after the epidemic as well as a couple other characters that flesh things out and add additional angles and dimensions. The transitions are beautifully fluid and nearly seamless. The plotting intricate and detailed. A story like this could so easily feel forced and fake as the author directs all the various elements to fit together no matter what, but there was hardly a clunker to be found.

I loved that the story makes some wonderful observations and asks some interesting questions. Since it is now twenty years after the epidemic there are an interesting mix of people, older adults who remember everything that has been lost, adults who were children at the time like Kirsten who have fading memories of electricity and cars and flying in airplanes but didn’t know quite enough of the world to feel that they had lost so very much. And now there are children who have been born in the aftermath, who know nothing of what the world was except from the stories the adults tell and from pictures in books. At one point someone questions whether they should even teach the children about what the world was like before. His young daughter is upset and angry upon learning that lifespans were so much longer before due to all the medical technology and medicines available and is devastated by the unfairness of it all.

There are terrifying moments of watching the world come to an end. Jeevan and his brother Frank are holed up in Frank’s Toronto apartment. Jeevan, getting a tip from a doctor friend at the hospital just as the flu hit Toronto, had time to buy shopping carts full of supplies and haul them to his brother’s high rise building and from the windows they watch the world fall apart:

On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. no one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no on removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.

The title of the book comes from the title of a comic book in the story, Station Eleven. Station Eleven is a space station designed as a planet. The station/planet has been badly damaged from a wormhole and the inhabitants of the station are fighting to survive and find a way to get back home. This comic plays an important role in the novel but it doesn’t become completely clear until the end.

As scary and realistic as the book’s premise is, this is not a depressing dystopian kind of book. Bad things happen in it but it ends on a hopeful note. If you are not a general fan of science fiction or post-apocalyptic novels this one is different enough that you just might enjoy it. And if you are a fan of this sort of book, well, it’s a real treat and a breath of fresh air in what is generally a genre composed of a pile-up of horrors.

For a bit of background on the book from the author, be sure to read her short interview with the National Book Foundation.

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