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)
Emily St. John Mandel’s early novels have 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 on a winter night during a performance of King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. An aging Hollywood actor returns to the live stage, only to die— not figuratively— before his audience.
Most of the human race will follow.
Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Part of the book takes place 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 rest 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 effects of lives lived and things left behind.
Many stories have used apocalyptic events to examine humanity under pressure, and to accentuate dramatic conflict. Station Eleven does not ignore these elements, but the novel 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.
Some readers will find the first third of this book slow-moving; I found it spellbinding even during its smaller character moments. I would have cared about these people even if civilization wasn’t collapsing.
While I like the ending, the resolution of key conflicts at the climax come about too easily, with a few questionable, though not impossible, plot contrivances.
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)
Originality: 4/6 We’re in a prolonged age of post-apocalyptic literature, 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 the war with the Walking Dead; it’s about humanity confronting itself.
Story: 5/6 The first part of the book focuses on characters and locations and the seeds of the plot; the second half becomes a kind of drama / mystery / adventure. My Low Point aside, I recognize an almost-mythic, fabulous quality to this story, and a certain chain of coincidence—spread over two decades—while slightly far-fetched, is integral to the story.
Characterization: 5/6 Character drives the story, which concerns itself more with people than elaborate world-building. I believed in these people. I did find some of the younger survivors less differentiated than I would have liked.
Emotional Response: 6/6
Editing: 6/6 Mandel has written a haunting account of civilizations present and future.
Overall Score: 6/6 Allusions to King Lear permeate this book. Nevertheless, she also references graphic novels and Star Trek and, at one point, her characters note the lack of zombies in their world, and consequently acknowledge that their world “could be worse.”
I did find myself wondering, just a little, what was becoming of untended dams and power plants.
In total, Station Eleven receives 38/42