Toward the end of his second decade in the airport, Clark was thinking about how lucky he’d been. Not just the mere fact of survival, which was of course remarkable in and of itself, but to have seen one world end and another begin. And not just to have seen the remembered splendors of the former world, the space shuttles and the electrical grid and the amplified guitars, the computers that could be held in the palm of a hand and the high-speed trains between cities, but to have lived among those wonders for so long. To have dwelt in that spectacular world for fifty-one years of his life. Sometimes he lay awake in Concourse B of the Severn City Airport and thought, “I was there,” and the thought pierced him through with an admixture of sadness and exhilaration.
If there ever needed to be a post apocalyptic antidote to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Station Eleven is certainly that book. Beginning with the death of Arthur Leander, who collapses on stage during a performance of King Lear, Emily St John Mandel’s National Book Award nominated novel injects a degree of hope into the end of the world scenario. Leander’s death presages the coming of the Georgia Flu, a virus that kills most of humanity. But if there’s one clear message in the book it’s that just because civilisation as we know it is over doesn’t mean we can’t salvage something worthwhile from the wreckage.
The book focuses on four characters whose lives were influenced by Arthur Leander. There’s Jeevan the once paparazzo training to be a paramedic who tries to save Arthur’s life; there’s Kirsten the child actor who befriends Leander in his last days, there’s Clark the best friend who in recent times has drifted apart from Arthur and there’s Miranda the first ex-wife whose self published comic book, Station Eleven, miraculously survives the end of the world.
One of the neat structural elements of the novel is the way it jumps backwards and forwards in time, detailing the subsequent days and weeks following the virus’ arrival in the States and exploring what happened to society twenty years later. At the story level, the non-linear approach gives the book a jigsaw puzzle effect which Mandel takes full advantage of. Part of the joy of the novel is watching how she draws an intricate web that connects each character to Arthur but also directly and indirectly to each other.
These time jumps also allow Mandel to view Arthur, Kirsten, Jeevan, Clark and Miranda from different perspectives. For example, we briefly meet Kirsten when she’s eight years old performing, like Arthur, in a production of King Lear. At different stages of the novel we flashback to that eight year old girl, coddled and privileged and innocent, befriending the older actor. But the bulk of Kirsten’s story is set twenty years in the future where she is part of the Travelling Symphony, a ragtag group of twenty actors and musicians who provide entertainment – mostly Shakespeare – to the communities that have survived post the virus. It’s here that we see how her brief contact with Arthur, and the Station Eleven comic he gave her, influenced the person she’s become. It’s Kirsten who has spray painted on the lead wagon the statement that “Survival is Insufficient”. (Believe it or not it’s a quote from Seven of Nine said in an episode of Star Trek Voyager – Survival Instinct). It’s a message that’s in direct dialogue with a book like The Road where survival is all the unnamed protagonist and his son can look forward to. For Kirsten and her friends it’s critical that entertainment – whether it’s Shakespeare or classical music – endures into the future.
Kirsten and the Travelling Symphony’s wish to continue the traditions of the past is also a key element of Clark’s part of the narrative. Through sheer luck and a soupcon of coincidence he, and 137 others, including Arthur’s second ex-wife and son, don’t contract the virus while flying to New York. Due to the emergency they land in Severn City, and once it’s clear no-one is coming to save them, decide to make the abandoned airport their home. As the year progresses and the community in Severn City airport flourishes, Clark begins to collect items of the past – iPhones, money, credit cards, engines from cars and motorbikes – and forms a museum of sorts. It acts as a learning tool for those children born after the virus, children who struggle to understand that the once parked up planes on the tarmac used to travel in the sky. It’s through Clark that we get a series of poignant observations about the transition from the old world to the new such as the one that tops this review and the following:
Clark looks up at the evening activity on the tarmac, at the planes that have been grounded for twenty years, the reflection of his candle flickering in the glass. He has no expectation of seeing an airplane rise again in his lifetime, but is it possible that somewhere there are ships setting out? If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain? Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side? If nothing else, it’s pleasant to consider the possibility. He likes the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.
Again, there’s that sense of hope, the sense that while so much has been lost, the transition to a new world and new way of life doesn’t mean we have to give up on everything that was good and worthwhile about the past..
Transition is also key to Jeevan’s story. His life and future career was already in the midst of change when the Georgia Flu hit. Jeevan had been a paparazzo, once making a bundle when he took a snap of a vulnerable Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, late one night outside their house. But he comes to hate his job and trains to be a paramedic. This one decision saves his life. In the post Georgia Flu world he becomes the closet thing his community has to a Doctor. In a world where billions have died, Jeevan finally discovers meaning in his life, discovers among the tragedy a sense of self-worth.
And finally there’s Miranda, Arthur’s first wife. In some respects her role in the novel is more influential, more important than Arthur’s because it’s Miranda who draws and self publishes Station Eleven, the comic that will capture Kirsten’s imagination and will somehow survive the flu. The comic also tells a story of survival – Earth has been enslaved by aliens – as Doctor Eleven and a group of rebels take a space station (Station Eleven) and steer it through a wormhole.
Unlike Clark, Jeevan and Kirsten, Miranda is the one character who succumbs to the Georgia Flu. In a scene that’s both heartbreaking but written with nuance and skill, Miranda spends her final minutes on a Malaysian beach looking at out sea:
Miranda opened her eyes in time to see the sunrise. A wash of violent color, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and the water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven, its extravagant sunsets and its indigo sea. The lights of the fleet fading into morning, the ocean burning into sky.
It’s fitting that her last thoughts are of Station Eleven. It’s ultimately her legacy and while her name is forgotten her work continues to influence.
If the novel has a weakness it’s those post Georgia Flu sections dealing with a crazy religious cult headed by a young man who calls himself The Prophet. While there’s a nice wrinkle to the prophet’s identity, it’s a shame that Mandel felt the book needed a villain to keep the narrative flowing.
That quibble aside, Station Eleven is a magnificent piece of post apocalyptic writing. As a response to The Road it argues that the end of the world shouldn’t mean the end of love and art and a sense of self-worth. These things can and should endure. It’s also one of the best genre novels I’ve read this year with an understanding of the genre that’s reinforced by the book’s many and self-aware (but never annoying) pop culture references. It’s a shame then that, aside from Larry Nolen, this book has garnered little interest from genre reviewers. It deserves the sort of buzz that was generated by Ancillary Justice.