(Fair Warning: Despite my title, if you are someone who is terrified you’re going to get Ebola, don’t read this book yet.)
Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, is a book you need to read. In a market cluttered with variations of the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic life, this one is the deepest and the quietest; the most poetic and the most literary in the best sense of that word. Yes, it’s a quiet, poetic literary “After the End of Everything” novel.
Station Eleven stretches out, backward and forwards in the story’s timeline, like an intricate spider web, and the enter of this delicate but strong narrative is Arthur Leander, actor and former superstar. Arthur had a huge movie career when he was younger. Now fifty-one, he feels his fame waning. At a performance of an unusually-staged King Lear, Arthur suffers a heart attack and dies. This happens in the first five pages of the book.
By dying, Arthur escapes that terror and panic that is only days away. An influenza strain, called the Georgian Flu because it was discovered in that country, is finding its way across the world, helped by pan-continental air travel. Jeevan, the young paramedic in training, and Kirsten, a child actress Arthur had befriended, are both present when Arthur dies, and both escape the flu.
Twenty years later, Kirsten, travels with the Traveling Symphony, caravanning (most of the actors and musicians on foot) from settlement to settlement in a recovering, post-high-tech United States. The Symphony plays classical music and puts on Shakespearean plays. Kirsten, now in her early thirties, feels at home with the Symphony. Things have settled down from the days of the flu, although the world is not safe, and people must do things they hate in order to survive. The two daggers tattooed on Kirsten’s arm attest to that. In a small town where Kirsten hopes to reconnect with two performers who stayed to raise their child, the Symphony comes to the attention of a leader who calls himself the Prophet and his henchmen. At first glance, this part of the story seems traditionally post-apocalyptic, and it is. Of interest, though, is the origin of the Prophet.
Station Eleven moves back and forth in time, sharing bits from Arthur’s life, and following various people who are connected to him. We follow two of his ex-wives, his best friend, and Arthur himself. Absent from the story, but driving part of it, is his childhood friend Victoria, who lives on the island in Puget Sound where Arthur grew up.
Every primary character in the book, from before the flu or after, has some connection with Arthur.
Mandel is not particularly interested in the technology of survival and recovery. She is interested in the human spirit, the connections we make and how those connections nurture (or poison) us. The motto of the Traveling Symphony is “Because survival is insufficient.” This is taken from a Star Trek episode. Kirsten has adopted this as her personal motto and it is tattooed onto her arm. People walk hundreds of miles to perform Shakespeare, because survival alone is not enough. In an abandoned airport, Clark, Arthur’s best friend, creates a Museum of the Twenty-First Century to remind people of what life was like. Both Kirsten and the Prophet are inspired and guided by a strange, limited edition comic book (there were only two volumes, and only two copies printed) called Station Eleven, a study in isolation and humanity. Station Eleven was drawn and written by Miranda, Arthur’s first wife.
The book is beautifully written and often drily funny. Probably the people who will get the most enjoyment out of Clark’s pre-flu job, and the later discussion in the Museum, are people who have had a 360-degree evaluation or used some kind of management consultant. Jeevan’s stint as a paparazzo is funny but sad. I could probably write an entire column on his off-handed comment to Miranda about his job being like combat, knowing that later he will stay with his wheelchair-bound brother, an embedded reporter who was shot in Afghanistan.
The heart of the book, though, is Arthur. Arthur’s art may be a guiding light that travels, as he does not, into the post-flu future, but his acts of kindness toward an unhappy child actress are what survive. Kirsten is shaped in more than one way by her memories of Arthur.
Most post-apocalypse books don’t deal with the human spirit. While characters like the Prophet are common, the battle is usually for control, and the focus is military. In Station Eleven, what is most interesting about the Prophet is where he came from.
A solidly literary writer, Mandel still takes the time to think through, for the most part, what society immediately after a catastrophic die-off might be like. There is an actual story in the book’s present timeline, not just endless meditations on aloneness. At the same time, Mandel knows exactly what it is she wants to explore here, and does it thoroughly. Instead of trying to ring all the SF “bells,” she sticks to the story she wants to tell. I can’t recommend this book enough.