I thought that Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was a fantastic book. This piece of plague - fiction was gripping, had complex and interesting characters, philosophical musings and themes. The novel was first published in 2014. It has been very popular since. Obviously, a lot of folks are comparing the plot of this book to the current situation to the covid - 19 situation, a comparison that I think might be overblown.
The premise of the book is that a devesting contagion, known as The Georgia Flu, wipes out all but 1% of humanity. At the book’s center is Arthur Leander. Arthur is a famous actor who dies on stage of a heart attack while preforming King Lear, just before the flu hits. Every major character in the narrative is somehow connected to Arthur. The novel takes place in various time periods both before and after the epidemic.
After the plague civilization collapses and people congregate in small settlements, living with almost no technology. Eventually even internal combustion motors become inoperable as the remaining gasoline becomes unstable. After the collapse most of the story occurs around the Great Lakes Region of Canada and the United States. The most important of several plot threads centers upon The Traveling Symphony, a classical music and Shakespearian theater group that moves between the settlements putting on performances.
Kirsten Raymonde, who as a little girl witnessed Arthur’s death, is now a Shakespearian actor with The Symphony. Clark Thompson is Arthur’s best friend. After the plague he helps to establish a civilized community in an what used to be an airport. Miranda Carroll is Arthur’s first wife. Before the plague, she created a comic book, called Station Eleven about a gigantic future space station and its commander, that serves as an inspiration for Kirsten and other members of The Symphony. Jeevan Chaudhary is an ex - paparazzi and a paramedic who attempted to save Author when he collapses on stage. Jeevan survives the flu while holed up in an apartment and later becomes a doctor in post collapsed America. Tyler Leander is Arthur’s son. He is a child when the plague hits. He grows up to be a Jim Jones - like cult leader who accomplishes his goals through violence, rape and murder and eventually comes after The Traveling Symphony. There are many other characters and plot threads that take place before and after the outbreak.
This book is something of a jigsaw puzzle. The plot, characters and certain symbolic objects fit together as the novel progresses. What I mean is that the narrative frequently jumps between various times and places. A chunk of the narrative takes place fifteen years before the virus strikes. Another takes place just when the plague hits and in the ensuing months. Still another takes place fifteen years after the outbreak. What is more or less the main story, takes place twenty years after the initial outbreak. There are many plot threads and characters interweaving through it all. Mandel handles all this expertly as it never becomes confusing and the connections between people and objects become apparent as the story progresses. For instance, the tale of Miranda’s creation of the Station Eleven comic slowly unfolds throughout the book. Interspaced with this is references to the same comic that take place in a future time period.
There are a few overriding points throughout the book. The characters philosophize a lot about life, science, art, and all sorts of other themes. A basic idea seems to be that that certain things in the post - flu world are worth supporting and these things are what makes the world better. Those elements are decent, empathetic and community orientated behavior, reason and science, as well as art. After the collapse the world became violent, unjust and brutal. But things seem to be slowly getting better because of these basic, positive values. There is an eventual confrontation between Kirsten and other members of the Symphony and the prophet, but it is not a great climatic battle. Instead, the characters who hang on to a basic form of morality, build communities, and try to preserve art and science over the course of years are the heroes of the story.
The novel includes a lot of literary and philosophical references including a fair amount of Shakespeare. There are also many references to various Star Trek television series. In fact, the motto of the traveling orchestra is “survival is insufficient” a phrase used in a Star Trek Voyager episode. Mandel cannot seem to help to delve into all kind of subjects so there is also an aesthetic discussion about the lower art of Star Trek verses the higher art of Shakespeare. Star Trek’s common themes of art, reason, decency and humanity triumphing over chaos are integrated into this novel’s plot so this all makes sense. The characters also tend to philosophize a lot in a middle brow way that also reminds me a lot of the philosophizing that goes on in Star Trek episodes. Mandel is obviously a fan.
Other plague books that I have read over the years come to mind when thinking about this novel. Though Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain was highly scientific, the plague in that novel did not reach apocalyptic proportions. Though I liked it Stephen King’s The Stand, that book did not try to be realistic. Instead it was a mix of horror and fantasy that was ultimately turned into a parable of good versus evil. Frank Herbert’s The White Plague was realistic and still is the most horrifying plague - fiction that I have read. Folks often mention Albert Camus’s The Plague, however, that book did not involve science fiction or fantasy elements and really belongs in a different class of books. Camus’s novel aside, Station Eleven was the best science fiction plague book that I have read to date.
This novel was most similar to King’s book as both novels took the reader through the plague itself and then into the post - plague worlds. I found Mandel’s vision here mostly realistic, particularly the post - plague part. Her vision of the plague and the world that is left behind seems mostly plausible, especially as compared with King’s more fanciful book. I could nitpick about some details in this novel. For instance, I think that anything that killed as fast as The Georgia Flu would not spread so fast as it would kill and disable people before they could spread it. It is also not clear whether the survivors were just immune to the disease or just managed not to get the disease.
Mandel’s prose style is excellent. She manages to mix poetic descriptions with insightful and sometimes philosophical commentary. Below she is painting a picture of how life has changed after the collapse. In doing so she seems to have something to say about the world as it is, in this case, social media related,
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.
The characters are also well crafted and nuanced. Arthur is complex. He is not always likable. He is self - centered and does not always treat those around him as he should. However, he also has redeeming qualities. He is self - aware and comes to recognize that he must do better. Kirsten is a very capable and intelligent person who wrestles with the trauma that she has encountered and the things that she has had to do in the in this post - apocalyptic world. She also seems to represent optimism. There are additional characters who are also well drawn.
Of course, with the coronavirus outbreak, this book is timely, at least in some ways. My blog posts are delayed so I actually started reading this relatively early when the real virus was just beginning to be a concern in many countries. These early news reports may have prompted me to finally read this but I have been meaning to give this a try for a long time. With that, as serious as coronavirus is, I think that parallels to this book are really limited. The wiping out of most of humanity is not what is happening now. Any points that Mandel is trying to convey here tend to be universal, and not really related to diseases or epidemics.
For all the above reasons I thought that this book was excellent. It has interesting characters, a page turning plot, and thought provoking themes. For those who like this sort of book, I highly recommend this novel. It deserves its popularity.