2010s, 2014, Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, British Fantasy Award nominee, Emily St. John Mandel, John W. Campbell Award nominee, National Book Award nominee, PEN/Faulkner Award nominee, post apocalyptic
Hell is the absence of the people you long for.
Emily St. John Mandel’s first three novels were all mysteries, and the second—The Singer’s Gun—won the 2014 Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. As if to show her versatility, her fourth novel was the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, making the National Book Award shortlist and winning the Arthur C. Clarke award. It happens to be the 2015-16 Great Michigan Read—presumably because it was set in Northwestern lower Michigan—and in a fit of civic duty, I decided that yes, I would read this post-apocalyptic novel about Shakespeare. (As a fan of post-apoc literature, it wasn’t a tough decision.)
It’s a snowy night in near-future Toronto. Arthur Leander is transitioning from screen to stage in a production of King Lear, but on this night of all nights, he has a heart attack in the middle of the play. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo-turned-EMT, leaps onstage to perform CPR, while the rest of the production—including child actress Kirsten Raymonde—watch on in horror. Despite his best efforts, Jeevan is unsuccessful in reviving the actor, and leaves in a state of shock. That same night marks the outbreak of the Georgia Flu in North America, a pandemic with a near-100% fatality rate. From his brother’s highrise, Jeevan watches the city crumble into anarchy. Most of the theater’s troupe will be dead within two weeks.
Fifteen years after the outbreak, civilization has began to return in the form of small communes and towns—groups and families living out of old fast food buildings, roadside motels, and Walmarts. Kirsten Raymonde is an actress with the Traveling Symphony, a mix-mash of Shakespearean actors and a military band. The Symphony roams between the isolated settlements along the Great Lakes coastline, playing music and performing theater for the small hamlets. Most in demand are the plays of Shakespeare. It’s a relatively peaceful existence, but things change when they arrive at a small town now led by The Prophet, who holds a funeral service for anyone who leaves town—the grave is filled in if the person returns.
Twenty years before the outbreak, Arthur Leander was an actor whose fame and popularity was rising. He left behind a trio of failed marriages, a few long-standing friendships, and an estranged son living with his second ex-wife in Israel. Arthur’s life is hopeful but also mournful, a cavalcade of paths-not-taken. By the end, Arthur hopes to be a better person, wants to get to know his estranged son and pay his young mistress’ college tuition. It all comes a bit too late, or rather not early enough—but he lives on through Kirsten. She barely remembers Arthur or his tragic death, but clings to old gossip magazines, gleaning scraps about Arthur from before the fall.
The non-linear narrative jumps across decades, following Jeevan as the pandemic takes hold, watching Kirsten in a more stable time after civilization’s fall, and seeing fragments of Arthur’s fractured life from before. Arthur’s section acts as the glue between Jeevan’s story and Kirsten’s, a look at loss and love and ambition, whose plot-threads and developments have an impact across time and plot. Without knowing it, most of the characters manage to bump into the lives of the others, a tangled web of relationships between the well-realized characters. It’s easy to write it off as convenience or contrived, but I found it worked very well. It gives a sense of how intimate and interconnected our civilization can be… and in its absence, it shows how isolated and forlorn a world without connectivity is.
I’m a bit disappointed by the reaction of SF fandom; while Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke award and saw George R.R. Martin lavish it with praise and his Hugo nod, I’ve seen too many cases where readers took it as another case of (gag) literary/mainstream authors crawling in the windows at night to steal our genre tropes. To me, this is the exact incorrect response—shouldn’t we applaud rather than condemn authors for increasing the literary merits of science fiction, using genre elements to craft a beautifully written, thought-provoking, and deeply humane work? Station Eleven is the kind of meditative and ambitious novel that makes you stop and think, using a science fictional setting and themes to explore a variety of deep and meaningful concepts. It does that with grace and style, refusing to club the reader over the head and never compromising its vision.
Despite its appearance as yet another post-apocalyptic novel with a plucky young heroine, Station Eleven breathes fresh life into the genre. It’s not the typical king-of-the-wasteland post-apoc novel, instead using the apocalypse as a literary device—a means to show what was lost, contrasting what we take for granted with what’s worth remembering. It’s about the paths taken and not taken during one’s life, for good or ill. It’s a novel about relationships, memory, the role of art, and the connections between disparate lives. The strong characterization and well-executed narrative are just icing on the cake, as is the beautiful melancholic language and the mournful atmosphere. And yet, beneath the elegy of the fallen past, it’s a novel full of hope, showing that even after the world’s end there are still things worth hanging on to. A haunting novel whose concepts linger long after its pages are closed.
Title: Station Eleven
Editor: Emily St. John Mandel
Release Date: 2014
What I Read: ebook
MSRP: $24.95 hc / $15.95 pb / $9.99 ebook
Price I Paid: $2.99 (Kindle deal)
ISBN/ASIN: 0804172447 / B00J1IQUYM