Twenty years after the end of air travel, the caravans of the Traveling Symphony moved slowly under a white-hot sky... They were near Lake Michigan, but they couldn't see it from here. Trees pressed in close at the sides of the road and erupted through cracks in the pavement, saplings bending under the caravans and soft leaves brushing the legs of horses and Symphony alike. The heat wave had persisted for a relentless week. (35)
A fragment for my friend—
If your soul left this earth I would follow you and find you
Silent, my starship suspended in night (141)
Emily St. John Mandel's early novels caught the attention of literary readers. Her most recent work was shortlisted for the National Book Awards; it should be nominated for the Hugo and Nebula as well. Her literary approach to the post-apocalyptic begins during a performance of King Lear on "a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto"(3). A fifty-one-year-old Hollywood actor returns to the live stage, only to die before his audience.
Most of the human race will follow.
The plot shifts from place to place and back and forth in time. Portions occur in the present/near future, during the days before and during the outbreak of the Georgia Flu, a virus so virulent it spreads with the rapidity of the 1918 outbreak, but leaves over 90% of the human race dead. The remainder occurs twenty years later, as the lives of a traveling troupe, performing for the towns around the Great Lakes, cross paths with an apocalyptic cult and an airport-based colony. The storyline shifts in time and place as we see the butterfly effects of lives lived and things left behind.
Some people may avoid this book due to another ailment, "apocalyptic story fatigue." We're in a prolonged age of post-apocalyptic literature. The Walking Dead remains the most-watched cable series, and Stephen King already made influenza the agent of death in The Stand. Despite the similarity in premise, the author's handling of this subject matter differs dramatically from either King's or the mass media's, and her characters' reactions to events strike me as more plausible than those found in the most recent Tales of Collapsed Civilizations.
Station Eleven isn't about a showdown between Good and Evil or a war with a Shambling Horde; it's about humanity confronting itself. The novel doesn't ignore the heightened drama and dangers of a collapsing civilization, but it focuses on the connections among human beings and the role of art and symbols, even in a world where death lurks close by, brigands haunt the overgrown roadways, and there is "No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one's hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite"(31). Even in such a world, where some very likable people display their kills in the form of tattoos and towns can be overtaken in the night, the survival of humanity requires the survival of those things that make us human. It is these things the novel, in the end, reaffirms. It makes an interesting companion to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. While it will never receive that novel's level of recognition, Station Eleven features a few elements it lacks-- like strong female characters, proper punctuation, and hope.
The author has previously been recognized by critics and indie readers, and her elegant style certainly reflects her literary leanings. Allusions to King Lear abound. Nevertheless, a graphic novel plays a key role, Star Trek gets referenced by the actors, and, at one point, her characters note the lack of zombies in their world, and consequently acknowledge that their situation "could be worse." To SF readers who might eschew this novel, I would say that Emily St. John Mandel is no literary snob or genre-come-lately. She's simply a very good writer who has tackled an SF premise. SF fen should be thrilled.
Of course, more action-focused readers will find the first third of this book slow-moving. It focuses on characters and locations and the seeds of the plot. The author is more interested in characters than world-building, though her world certainly feels real.1 The second half becomes a kind of drama / mystery. The labyrinthine story takes on an almost-mythic, fabulous quality, and a certain chain of coincidences and unexpected influences—spread over two decades— becomes integral to the story. As a result, the resolution of key conflicts comes about a tad too easily, with a few questionable, though certainly not impossible, plot contrivances. No matter. I found Mandel's story spellbinding throughout. While a few of the characters could have been differentiated further, I always believed in these people, and I would have cared about them even if civilization wasn't collapsing.
Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
First published in September 2014.
1. I did find myself wondering, just a little, what was becoming of untended dams and power plants.