Sunday, April 10, 2022

the last book I read

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

So there's been a global pandemic of an airborne flu-like viral disease. I mean, stop me if you've heard this one before. This one is a bit more deadly than COVID-19, though, and has taken out around 99% of the global population.

We're going to tell this story via jumping between various timelines, though, so come with me now to fair Toronto where we lay our scene, and verily and forsooth and hey nonny nonny and all that stuff we're in a theatre, and we're Doing A Shakespeare, King Lear in fact. Playing the king is none other than celebrated film actor Arthur Leander, a bit balding and past his prime and in the throes of divorcing his third wife but making a return to the theatre, his first love, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, all that stuff. 

Actually, Arthur is feeling a bit peaky tonight as he has some sort of flu-y bug that he picked up somewhere (it's never very clear where). He is unable to keep this a secret for long as halfway through the play he has a massive heart attack, scrapes agonisingly down the scenery and expires on the floor. It's never completely clear whether we are to assume that he died of the flu virus which has already made landing in North America, or just carked it in an unrelated incident. Either way, his death soon pales into insignificance as the virus rips through all major cities, giving those trapped in them a terrible dilemma - try to get out? but how? in a car? all the roads are gridlocked - stick around? but where is safe? and how do you get food? and what happens when the water and electricity go off?

We now zoom forward twenty-odd years to a post-pandemic world. One obvious difference: not nearly as many people. Most of those who have survived do so outside of the cities, which are vaguely alluded to as chaotic mass graveyards. But there's no TV or internet, so what do you do in the small gaps of leisure time that remain in between the life-and-death struggles for survival? Well, what the Travelling Symphony do (as the name suggests) is rove around and play music to the people who remain in the various scattered settlements, as well as enacting some Shakespeare plays. The cast of actors and musicians has changed over time as people have come and gone, but one of the principals as we meet them is Kirsten, who just happens to have been a child actor in Arthur Leander's fateful production of King Lear back in the before times.

The Travelling Symphony pass through many towns on their roving travels, generally around the southern end of Lake Michigan, to mixed receptions and crowds. I mean, that's showbiz, right? But things change when they pass through the small settlement of St. Deborah by the Water - they've visited before, but since then the town seems to have been taken over by some slightly odd culty religious types, led by a smiling young man just referred to as The Prophet. The Travelling Symphony do a performance and are then invited to stay, or, if they don't fancy that, to leave one of their young women as a bride for the prophet, whereupon the more savvy members of the troupe smell what's in the air and organise a very swift packing up and moving on, heading for the airport terminals at Severn City where it is rumoured that there is a Museum of Civilisation - a repository of old artefacts: mobile phones, credit cards, passports and the like.

Turns out that's not the end of it, though, as hot on the heels of the discovery that a child from St. Deborah by the Water has stowed away with the company, two of the sentries sent out from the place where they've stopped to camp fail to return from their patrol. What's going on?

Probably about time for another excursion into the past - we get some insight into Arthur Leander's early life and in particular his relationship with his first wife Miranda. Miranda spends much of her time working on her comic-book opus Station Eleven, a sort of science fiction graphic novel thing. It further transpires that by a sequence of coincidences one of the few printed copies of Station Eleven has ended up in the hands of Kirsten, who reveres it as some sort of holy relic. 

Kirsten and her friend August go off on a foraging expedition in the morning following the sentries' disappearance, ahead of the main group, who they expect to catch them up. But when they get back onto the road, the caravan is nowhere to be seen. What's going on? 

All becomes clear as Kirsten and August meet an advance patrol from the prophet's group on the road, and see that they have a hostage with them: Sayid, one of the sentries who disappeared from the camp. One thing that surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland teaches you is some serious survival skills, though, and Kirsten (who is some sort of knife-throwing ninja) and August (who carries a bow and arrow) dispatch the patrol with brutal efficiency and rescue Sayid, who tells them that the Symphony got wind of the prophet's group and changed course to avoid them, and moreover that the prophet's group group are just behind them and they should probably get moving. Too late, though, as they are discovered, and brought out from their hiding place at gunpoint. 

Redemption arrives in the nick of time from an unexpected source, though, and the group reunite with the main body of the Travelling Symphony, whereupon they complete the journey to Severn City Airport and meet the much larger group who have lived there ever since the airport was used as a venue for diverting flights away from major cities in the early days of the pandemic. But do they stick around in relative safety, or continue their travels, maybe to the south where there are rumours of settlements where people have managed to get the power back on?

Any novel depicting the onset of a viral pandemic and the aftermath of the societal breakdown that follows in its wake will have to bear comparison with many other novels in a similar genre, most obviously Stephen King's epic The Stand. If you remove the requirement for the apocalypse to be specifically human-viral in nature then you can add The Road, O-Zone, Riddley Walker, Dr. Bloodmoney, Cat's Cradle, When She Woke, The Pesthouse and The Death Of Grass just from the list of previous featurees on this blog. 

The Stand is the obvious point of comparison, though, and the contrasts are interesting. Both focus on the early days of the outbreak (though Station Eleven's timeline jumps around a lot more), but Station Eleven explicitly avoids getting into the detail of the collapse of society and the associated murder and cannibalism and instead jumps forward twenty years to the relative tranquility of the post-pandemic routine, though of course you can still be randomly raped and murdered at any time. This is obviously a carefully-considered authorial decision, the idea presumably being to focus on the uncrushable nature of the human spirit and the humanising influence of Art, but it makes the post-pandemic sections oddly light on peril. Obviously there are some other differences as well, most notably The Stand's explicitly supernatural elements. 

The sections featuring Arthur Leander, his first wife Miranda, and her graphic novel which finds its way into Kirsten's hands and functions as some sort of metaphor for the post-pandemic world are interesting in their own way but to my mind occupy too high a percentage of the book, and the whole graphic novel sub-plot seemed to be striving for some significance that I couldn't quite grasp. While perfectly adequately entertained I found myself keen to get back to what Kirsten was doing and see where that strand of the story was going. 

So, anyway, is Station Eleven as good as The Stand? No, but they are different books and that's a high bar to clear anyway. Is it nonetheless excellent? Yes it is. It was made into a TV series in 2020 (with seemingly some significant changes to plot and characters), filming ironically being disrupted by the onset of a global viral pandemic, though thankfully a slightly less deadly one. The rapid onset of societal panic here is very reminiscent of the turmoil of the early days of COVID-19 (again, differences of scale and severity notwithstanding) and the general feeling that as great as they are in normal times a big city with a gazillion other people is just the worst place to be when things all Kick Off in a big way.

Station Eleven also won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2015, an award which (as its name suggests) is for novels classified as science fiction, something which seems a bit of a stretch here. The same could be said of the 2010 winner, which just happens to have been the previous book on this list, The City & The City. Those are the only two winners to feature on this blog, but authors who have featured here who won the award for different books include Margaret Atwood, Christopher Priest, Neal Stephenson and M John Harrison