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Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

I have enjoyed, in the past, a good post-apocalyptic novel as much as the next person. A Boy and His Dog, A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Postman, not to mention various works by J G Ballard, as well as the few that are on this site, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Facial Justice, Barefoot in the Head, Fiskadoro, Heroes and Villains, The Pesthouse and The Road are all good reads. However, there are also a lot of bad post-apocalyptic novels (and films), perhaps too many, so when I saw that this book was a post-apocalyptic novel, I admit that I hesitated. Emily Mandel has, herself, said that she does not consider the book to be science fiction but admits that she might be alone in this view. My view is that science fiction does not have to be about aliens, space travel, robots and other advanced technology. Post-apocalyptic novels are generally agreed to be firmly in the science fiction field, so I will politely disagree with her assessment. Perhaps she takes the view that, if her book is deemed to be science fiction, that is to say, a genre work, it will be considered less worthy. This is, of course, a valid point of view but just let me say that, firstly, those books in this category on my site mentioned above are still considered as worthy. More importantly, this is an excellent novel whose theme is not just an exciting post-apocalyptic adventure, despite the fact, with the current Ebola scare, that may well be at the forefront of readers’ minds.

Though we follow many people in this book, there are four main characters, three of whom all meet for the last time at the beginning of the novel and just at the beginning of the outbreak of the Georgia Flu, which will kill off the majority of the world’s population in a very short space of time. The three characters are Kirsten Raymonde, eight years old at the beginning of the book, Jeevan Chaudhary, probably in his forties, and Arthur Leander, fifty-one. (The fourth is Arthur’s friend, Clark Thompson.) They meet at a theatre in Toronto, where Leander, a famous film star, is playing the lead role in King Lear. The director has child versions of Lear’s daughters in the play and Kirsten is one of these. Chaudhary has met Arthur Leander before, interviewing him for a magazine. He had also stalked him for a long time, when he had worked as a paparazzo. Jeevan is now training to be a paramedic. During the play Arthur seems to stumble and confuse his words and Jeevan realises that he is having a heart attack. He rushes onto the stage to assist but he turns out to be too late. Arthur dies and Jeevan consoles Kirsten. The play is closed. On leaving the theatre, Jeevan learns from a friend, who is a hospital doctor, that the Georgia Flu has arrived and is killing people off. He urges Jeevan to leave town. Instead, Jeevan buys large quantities of food and drink and takes it to his wheelchair bound brother’s flat, where they hole up for several weeks, as the Internet, TV, electrical supply and tap water gradually stop working. The rest of the novel is both what happens to Kirsten, Jeevan and Clark after that and what happened to them and, in particular, to Arthur Leander, before. They and a couple of other key characters will all be linked by Arthur after the Georgia Flu pandemic.

We follow Arthur Leander’s rise from his childhood in Delano Island to his success. (There is a Delano Island in Canada, but this is not it, as the one in this book is between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, so we must assume that this one is fictitious.) Arthur has married and divorced three times, has one son (by his second wife; mother and son live in Jerusalem) and is, at the time of his death, having an affair. He has had considerable success in film and is well-off. His first wife, Miranda, who also came from Delano Island, though the pair met in Toronto, wrote a graphic novel called Station Eleven. It told the story of the Earth being taken over by aliens. A few rebels managed to steal a space station, the size of the Moon, and escaped through a wormhole into deepest space. Because of damage to the artificial sky, they live in perpetual twilight. As a result there are some who want to return to Earth, despite it being controlled by nasty aliens, while others wish to stay. We follow some of the plot during the course of the novel, not least because Arthur gave a copy to the young Kirsten and she has kept it ever since.

Much of the post-apocalyptic story, except for a description of what happened in the immediate aftermath, concerns The Travelling Symphony. This is a group of travelling musicians and actors. They were separate but they joined forces and now tour around small towns in the North-West of what was the United States. The musicians seemed to have abandoned their earlier names and go only by the names of their instruments. Kirsten is one of the actors. The actors mainly put on productions of Shakespeare, as that is what people seem to want. In recent years (we are now twenty years after the flu outbreak), they have had little trouble but naturally always have to be on the alert. They are now arriving at a small town, St. Deborah by the Water, which they had not visited for two years. When they were last there, they left two of their troupe there, as the woman, Charlie, was pregnant, and are hoping to meet them again. However, things seem to have changed. Charlie and her boyfriend, Jeremy, are not to be found. They seem to have left. They gradually find out that someone called The Prophet has taken over the town, though people are very reluctant to talk. He is clearly a standard Jim Jones style control freak. When he selects one of the troupe’s number as his next wife (he already has several), they decide that it is time to leave town. However, on their travels, troupe members seem to mysteriously disappear. Finally, Kirsten and her friend Alexander lose touch with the entire group. They endeavour to head for Severn City Airport, where Charlie and Jeremy were planning to go and where the rest of the Symphony had agreed to go. We have already learned who is there and why and what they are doing.

Much of this novel, while obviously about survival, is more than that. Kirsten has a tattoo which states Because survival is insufficient (it is a quote from Star Trek). Kirsten is not surprisingly interested in what happened in the period immediately before the disaster and has something of an obsession with Arthur Leander, always trying to find information about him in magazines she finds in the various houses she and Alexander make a habit of breaking into. Memory and recovery of memories are important for her, not least because she has little or no memory of the first year after the flu outbreak. They are also important to other characters, such as the character who creates the Museum of Civilisation, a museum in an airport of things from the past, including an IPhone, credit card and passport. The editor of a newspaper, who interviews Kirsten and others, however, finds that the memories are similar. All of the Symphony’s stories were the same, in two variations. Everyone else died, I walked, I found the Symphony. Or, I was very young when it happened, I was born after it happened, I have no memories or few memories of any other way of living, and I have been walking all my life.. Can the one per cent of people left rebuild some sort of civilisation, using orchestral music, Shakespeare and an idea that survival is not enough? This, in many respects, is the theme of this book.

One criticism I have concerns what would happen in this situation. Having been something of a glutton for films such as Aftermath and Life After People, it seems to be agreed that feral cats and dogs would take over the planet and, also, without human monitoring of nuclear power stations, these would go into meltdown, causing considerable damage in a wide radius around them. Animals play a minimal role in this book (horses as pack animals and wild animals as game) but have no other role. Nuclear power stations are not mentioned. My views are naturally a bit geekish and should not detract from what is a very fine and enjoyable novel, particularly relevant with the outbreak of Ebola. Mandel tells an excellent story but also does it intelligently perhaps because being a woman, she does not feel the need to have battles lasting for pages and pages nor some extralegal cowboy type roaming the world, saving (or not saving) the planet.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Knopf