Fiction Reviews

Station Eleven

(2014) Emily St. John Mandel, Picador, £7.99, pbk, 339pp, ISBN 978-1-447-26897-0


Attending a performance of King Lear in Toronto, trainee paramedic Jeevan notes that the lead actor is exhibiting the initial signs of an imminent heart attack. He and a cardiologist go to the actor's aid but there is little they can do: the actor dies.

However the actor's death coincides with the arrival of a bigger death from the eastern hemisphere, the Georgia Flu. SARS like the Georgia Flu has a high transmissibility; it also has a super-high mortality rate. In a matter of days Georgia Flu has traversed the world and within a week the majority of the population is ill. A fortnight later, apparently globally, only one in many thousands is left alive!

In essence Station Eleven follows the trajectory of a number of characters associated with the actor and his last performance through the 'end of the world' and into the post-apocalyptic era. This last is a time when the 'wonders' of our age – an international diet, cars, television, the internet, smart phones, air travel, and so forth – are gone. All that is left are the non-functional electronic devices and rusting vehicles.

In this world a troupe, that among others consisting of just some of those involved in the Toronto King Lear performance, tours southern Ontario putting on concerts and plays, especially Shakespeare. This 'Travelling Symphony' moves between the sparsely distributed survivor settlements, avoiding those that have cults, and along the way always wary of the few (but still dangerous in these devoid-of-police times) bandits around.

It is a world in which it is a struggle to survive. Even simple actions can have serious consequences: step on a nail and without antibiotics death was a fair probability. It is also a world of loss with the remains of technological wonders still around as reminders. And so it is a world in which some strive to retain some token, or to relive a memory of what was, while others – especially the new generation – have no particular interest in the past. It was reliving part of what once was that certainly was the key factor that made the 'Travelling Symphony' welcome in nearly all the settlements they visited. And the wonder of a musical concert for those of the new generation, who had never heard the radio or a gramophone record, enticed them.

Memories of the past were cherished in a number of ways. One of the protagonists was embarking on a new career as an SF graphic novelist when the Georgia Flu struck. At that time she had had a few editions of her Station Eleven comics published and following the apocalypse carried a few cherished editions with her. Another had a small pendant of the starship Enterprise. In fact Star Trek is referred to a couple of times, and the Travelling Symphony's motto is 'Survival is insufficient'.

As a read Station Eleven is a surprising page-turner. 'Surprising' because much of the promotional review quotes suggest that it is (ahem) literary with reference to Joyce and Orwell and Cormac McCarthy's The Road and so forth. The latter is particularly unfortunate as that work seems to have been written without any reference to genre, a post-apocalyptic novel (which for some genre buffs makes it a bit of a bland, albeit a perfectly functional, read). Conversely, Station Eleven is genre aware. In addition to the aforementioned Trek references, post apocalyptic films (movies) are mentioned noting that often they have hordes of zombies, but Station Eleven presents a lonely future and there are not even Mad Max cars as petrol does not survive more than a couple of years. Station Eleven's 'literary value' is also signalled through an appendix of 'Questions for discussion' and so obviously class use is anticipated by the publishers. Fortunately the novel is such an engaging read that being obliged to read it for class will not be necessary for it to garner readers: make it to page 40 and you are most likely to be truly hooked.

Station Eleven's perspectives are multiple and structure non-linear; it consists of flashbacks and flash-forwards with vignettes by different protagonists. Personally I tend not to care when timeline-hopping back and forth using multiple perspectives is overdone; to my mind it signals that the author does not have confidence in their novel's fundamental plotline to allow it to stand alone, and to my mind Station Eleven was nearly ruined by its convoluted packaging. However I accept that some readers enjoy pass-the-parcel unwrapping different packaging at each stage of the book. Fortunately, which ever camp you are in, in this instance Station Eleven just about successfully strikes the balance as there is some purpose to all this toing and froing as the book is essentially about finding value through loss and hence, in turn, for what one might strive for meaningful gain. Here the continued juxtaposition between what was before and after the 'apocalypse' greatly helps.

The Shakespeare motif is a constant, but fret not if you happen not to be into the great bard (and quite a few are not just as quite a few are) for though King Lear and Shakespeare are mentioned there are very few direct references to, and quotes from, his works. And if there were more veiled references then (as someone without an encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare) I missed them completely which did not seem to harm my own enjoyment of the novel. Having said that, while not having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bard, I am sufficiently aware of King Lear to know that one common interpretation of the play is that it is at least in part includes an allegorical examination of the transition from the medieval world of tradition, decency and knowing ones place, and the change to a more modern world of commercial competition. To say that this is reflected in Station Eleven's two worlds – pre and post Georgian Flu – is, though, probably a stretch too far.

Nonetheless, the Shakespeare motif scores in two ways. First, the bard is culturally iconic, especially among the literati, and somebody whose works we can all agree have had a tremendous impact down the ages (hence are of value). Second, Shakespeare grew up in Elizabethan Great Britain, a time when disease was rife and child mortality was high. Plague (bubonic) and epidemics (cholera among others) was a very real fear, and though Shakespeare had had two older siblings, he was the first of his parents' offspring to survive infancy. Back then he was as appreciated – if not more so due to lingual synchronicity between writer and followers – as now. But in Station Eleven, in its high-mortality, post-Georgia Flu world we see the appreciation of Shakespeare's works continue to endure. And so the inclusion of the Shakespearean dimension both has a symmetry reflected before and after the Georgia Flu as well as being a thematic exemplar of something that truly has lasting value.

This in turn contrasts with some things lost and mourned for but with question as to whether they are truly of value? Here, celebrity gossip and social media networking are just two of Station Eleven's targets. This whole issue of the distinction between 'need' and 'want' and the matter of personal calibration as to what is valuable is the fulcrum about which Station Eleven turns. And it is all good stuff.

As to where Station Eleven sits within SF's post-apocalyptic landscape is a little harder to pinpoint, if only because the landscape is so extensive. However sighting it by recognised landmarks I'd place it somewhere near the shadow of Philip K. Dick but not that far from John Wyndham.  In the shadow Philip Dick because one of the SF tropes to which he frequently returned was that of post-apocalyptic life, but in his shadow because Dick stated his interest lay in what happened after rather than in the apocalypse itself. Conversely, Emily St. John Mandel does not shy away from the actual event taking us right through the course of Georgia Flu pandemic. Meanwhile, Station Eleven is not that far from John Wyndham, one of whose frequently returned to motifs was, as Brian Aldiss put it in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973), 'cosy disasters' or catastrophes. Station Eleven shares much with 'cosy catastrophe' novel in that while there is grit, violence and death, a lot of it is off stage and referred to by the character as reporting a past event, or a newscaster reporting the news. And so we have a plane landing at an airport that taxis to a parking space farthest away from the passenger terminals and remains sealed… Passing through a settlement, seeing pregnant juveniles… Someone unable to get any more prescription medicine simply last seen walking away into a wood… And the actual apocalypse itself is mercifully brief, within weeks the majority of the population is gone. That the novel is 'cosy' is almost self referenced when at one point it is noted that there was not the violence or substantive breakdown of common decency one normally associates with apocalyptic fiction. But then the stripping of the thin veneer provided by technological civilization to reveal the primitive savage lurking beneath is not the point of this work: the question of what it is that is of value that is at this novel's heart. Having said that, there are a few scenes far from cosy and arguably these have greater impact for the absence of them elsewhere. And the feel of the pandemic's immediate aftermath in Station Eleven is not that far off that of Terry Nation's Survivors (1975-'77).

When Station Eleven first came out in Britain, Concatenation included it in its autumn 2014 news page as one of its choices as to the season's several notable new SF novel releases and I now stand by that tribute. Indeed now I wonder if we had been sent last year's hardback and others of the team had cottoned on before we got this year's mass market paperback edition, whether it might have made our recommendations for Best SF Books of 2014 listing? It did, however, get shortlisted for the 2015 Campbell Memorial Award and also won the 2015 Clarke Book Award. So you do not need to take my word for this being a recommended work.

Jonathan Cowie

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