“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”
There’s been something of a blog hiatus for the past few weeks due to my repeatedly attempting to cough up my entire respiratory system. I love this island but sweet mother of smog-induced asphyxiation is the pollution ever terrible. Anyway, it seems fitting that in the middle of my annual month-long malady I should start reading Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic bestseller from Emily St John Mandel. There’s nothing quite like hacking up glob after glob of revoltingly-coloured phlegm while the cast of the book you’re reading is doing exactly the same and dying by their billions.
Station Eleven is another of the recently feted literary genre releases which have seen the grimy, bleak portrayal of life after the fall elevated to the review sections of highbrow magazines and the bookshelves of those who would normally sneer at anything resembling sci-fi. It kicks off in an open-air theatre in Toronto with a production of King Lear under way. The aging star suddenly begins acting strangely. Within minutes he’s on the deck with a doctor emerging from the audience, trying in vain to revive him. A phone call to a colleague reveals that the stricken thespian is not the only one. And with that, civilisation is gone.
Almost frustratingly the action jumps ahead to a couple of decades in the future. Emily St John Mandel isn’t too concerned with portraying the collapse itself. She forgoes the gory details – smartly it turns out – and examines the aftermath as seen through a series of flashbacks from a small selection of survivors. The flu variant which swept the globe at an alarming speed left almost nothing in its wake and the world has become a hostile place. The majority of the action unfolds from the viewpoint of Kirsten Raymonde, proud member of the Travelling Symphony. Even at the twilight of mankind there is still a need for the arts and she braves the roads and settlements of the Great lakes area with her troupe, bringing Shakespeare to the dishevelled remnants. Little by little we learn more about how the world she inhabits came into being through the stories of those whose lives became intertwined with her own.
Station Eleven elicited in me almost entirely the opposite reaction from California which I reviewed previously. From start to finish it was utterly gripping. The dystopia which Mandel crafted was horrific yet entirely believable, and fully fleshed out without delving too much into the kind of gruesome minutiae which may please hardcore post-apoc fans but could alienate a wider readership. The story of the collapse of the system of the world as we know it is beautifully mirrored in the more personal tale of a man slowly losing his soul as he almost inadvertently betrays and disappoints those around him.
In conjunction with the flashbacks is a tense plot thread set in the grim future as the Travelling Symphony, a work of beautiful creative genius in itself, comes face to face with the harsh reality of mankind minus the civilisation. I’ll admit I had a couple of issues with the plausibility of the story behind our villain, known simply as The Prophet, but he was a wonderfully menacing creation. Despite being described as a young-ish man, his character and the sense of brooding evil behind him bizarrely had my mind conjuring up images of the demonic preacher Kane from Poltergeist 2 & 3 whenever he was mentioned.
Station Eleven is a most welcome addition to the recent canon of, shall we say, socially acceptable sci-fi. It’s a book I would not hesitate to recommend to friends who have never picked up a post-apocalyptic novel before, much as I would A Canticle For Leibowitz or The Dog Stars. It’s at the same time a thoughtful, engaging read which you want to savour as long as possible and a tense page-turner which will be over before you know it. We need more books like this.