Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publication date: 9/9/2014
Type: Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Dystopian
Characters: Miranda Carroll, Clark Thompson, Kirsten Raymonde, Jeevan Chaudhary, Arthur Leander, Sayid, Elizabeth Colton, Dieter, August, Gil Harris, Tyler Leander, Frank Chaudhary
Ray's rating: 4 stars
Station Eleven is a post-apocalypse, science fiction story that tells its tale by alternating between scenes before and after a specific point of civilization’s collapse. It is strongly character-driven although it never departs from tension-building plot threads that hold reader interest. I found it similar to David Mitchell’s stories in that minor characters in one section become major characters in others. Plot threads wind between sections but never break, and are resolved satisfyingly. Themes of survival, fear, and of “what constitutes success?” and “what values make us human?” make for rich layering in easy reading prose.
The novel is a compendium of several stories of characters and groups of characters, as is life. The binding plot is that of civilization’s collapse by means of a virus that wipes out the most of human life on Earth. No explanation is given for where the virus comes from, but it strikes suddenly and swiftly. Civilization’s subsequent fall is just as swift, such that people begin numbering years from the day of the fall. Scenes prior to collapse revolve around the life of famous actor, Arthur Leander. Those after collapse, follow the wanderings of the troupe of performers known simply as, “the Traveling Symphony.”
The inciting incident of the novel occurs just hours before acknowledged time of collapse, though it had been occurring for some time prior as the flu spread. That incident is the on-stage death of Arthur Leander as he performs the title role in a production of King Lear. From there, Ms. Mandel spins her tale via several threads emanating into the past and future, all bound by the collapse event, either impending or as a fact of the past.
Art is a dominant theme in all the story threads. Prior to collapse, we see it as defining the life of Arthur Leander’s first wife, Miranda. She is an artist who spends her best times working on a comic book she calls, Station Eleven. She does it for the sake of the creative process and never publishes the series, but does self-publish two issues that feature in plot threads stretching into the future. After the collapse, art is the glue that binds together the Traveling Symphony. The Symphony is comprised of musicians that perform classical pieces and actors that stage Shakespeare plays. They perform for the settlements of survivors stretching from around Toronto, Canada, to parts of Michigan around the Great Lakes.
The members of the Traveling Symphony are so connected to their art that many of them have abandoned their names and go by their places in the orchestra—the conductor, the seventh guitar, the clarinet, etc. As they travel, they find wide acceptance in the settlements from people starving for entertainment and a moment’s release from the daily struggle to survive (the classic function of the arts).
The Traveling Symphony also finds the dark side of surviving humanity and so the orchestra is an armed force with the musicians and actors carrying weapons as well as instruments. Their leaders can direct the logistics for staying safe against marauders as well as Beethoven sonatas. Such are the necessities for survival in the post-collapse world.
This book resonates with a love of the arts. The ability to create art is what rises some characters above the general crowd. A devotion to her comic book takes Miranda beyond the superficiality of the Hollywood scene. A devotion to the violin makes the character, August, more than a scavenger in the post-collapse. The Symphony performs Shakespeare because that’s what is mostly enjoyed in the settlements. It seems the Bard expressed life so well that his plays find a resonance with people even after their civilization is no more. And even religious fanatic marauders want to hear music well performed.
This art-defining-humanity theme is what offers hope after collapse and keeps the novel from sinking into “Mad Maxx” depths of darkness. Although Ms. Mandel does recognize the existence of “crazies” after collapse, she doesn’t dwell on it. Her survivors are wary and defensive, but are also accepting when genuine need is evidenced. She is also not blaming as to the cause of collapse. She provides no indication that the causation of the Georgia flu is anything other than a natural evolution of a virus to a lethal stage.
The hope for humanity after collapse is what provides Station Eleven its slant on post-apocalypse fiction. The storytelling comes across, to me, as a bit naive but is handled well artistically. Indeed, the craft Ms. Mandel shows is what most recommends this book for me. The device of moving back and forth in time to tell the story is often noted in reviews of Station Eleven. It is a device done to the point of exhaustion these days in books and video. I find it annoying in most productions but Ms. Mandel is able to handle it and make it work.
Station Eleven contains much to recommend it as a good read. It is a hopeful piece in a genre that is generally dark. Though being a compendium of character stories, there is a central plotline that binds them all together and leads to a satisfying end. Though reality is much darker than what Station Eleven depicts, this novel reminds us that rebirth can follow collapse, as long as the survivors value their humanity and can express it in art.