Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

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For those who like speculative fiction about the long term consequences of specific event, all of those convoluted what-ifs that create so many paths into possible futures, Station Eleven will not disappoint. It does have a very different flavor that other such novels I have read. Some of the keys to this different are as follows:

  • The post-apocalyptic world is green: Unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where the whole world has gone grey, dusty and ashy, Station Eleven features wildly growing greenery, like kudzu vines smothering houses in North Caroline.
  • The main characters are artists: There are no MacGyver types in Station Eleven. We have musicians, actors, writers who manage to continue living through their art, making meaning of this changes world for themselves and others.
  • Survival requires altruism rather than heroism: Survival comes from banding together and helping each other, looking for each other’s interest rather than heroically triumphing over the elements (or the bad guys).
  • Survivors do find joy in the small pleasures of everyday life in spite of the difficulties they encounter: One of the scenes that most struck me was how Kristen, one of the young actresses, is delighted to find a silk dress that fits her in an as-yet-unlooted house they encounter.

The book starts with setting the stage (a word more fitting than you might thing at first site) somewhat slowly. We encounter a number of characters and their somewhat flimsy connections in the first five chapters. Chapter 5 ends with this somewhat cryptic sentence:

This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.

I expected the following chapter to continue the slow lumbering towards catastrophe, but what happens next felt like I felt off my chair on my butt white being thumped on the head with a heavy dictionary. I ended up laughing out loud to myself for being taken so much by surprise by the switch in mood and setting. Chapter 6 starts with what is an incomplete list of what is no longer possible:

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.

And then: No more films, no more car fuel, no more pharmaceuticals nor manufactured goods, no more flight, no more fire departments, no more police, not more Internet. In other words, none of the tools of modern life as we know it, none of the complex structures by which social order was maintained, none of the conveniences of seemingly inexhaustible access to power and fuel.

What happened? It takes a little while longer to find out as Chapter 7 presents us with an abrupt jump into the future:

Twenty years after the end of air travel, the caravans of the Travelling Symphony moved slowly under a white-hot sky. It was the end of July, and the twenty-five-year-old thermometer affixed to the back of the lead caravan read 106 Fahrenheit, 41 Celsius. They were near Lake Michigan but they couldn’t see it from here. Trees pressed in close at the side 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.

The various trajectories taken by the characters we meet in the beginning are slowly revealed. Some make it through the twenty years after and some don’t.

Twenty years after what? You ask. So there it is: A virulent flu that wipes out most of humanity. If you are willing to look past the missing details on the epidemiology of that flu, the transmission, the incubation period, the virulence that might lead to the epidemic burning out on its own rather before killing most of the potential hosts, you will enjoy the speculation about what comes next for the survivors. And how such dire predicaments may still create some hope for the future.

And what is Station Eleven? I will let you discover that. In this short novel, there are many layers out of which the new reality is constructed and they cannot all be described here.

References

Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven. Harper Collins, Toronto, 2014.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Random House, New York, 2006.

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5 responses »

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