Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
A famous actor has a sudden heart attack while playing King Lear on stage in Toronto one night. An eight-year-old girl playing the memory of Lear’s daughter crouches on set and watches as a paramedic from the audience tries unsuccessfully to save the actor. It is left to the actor’s oldest friend to tell the actor’s ex-wife and their son about the man’s death. As all this unfolds, a virulent strain of the Georgia flu arrives in Toronto from a flight via Moscow and starts to spread across the rest of the world. It is quick, deadly and sudden, wiping out the majority of the world’s population. But we’ve already met those who will survive and for whom simply survival will not be enough.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic dystopia story that focuses on characters and not worldbuilding, a story that will appeal to a wide range of people, including those who don’t read post-apocalyptic dystopia stories. It is set in a world where the population is so low that an economic infrastructure no longer exists and is not worth rebuilding, where people are forced to live off whatever they can scavenge or find, where boundaries between countries and people have been erased. All the mass death happens off the page, with Mandel moving in time between years in the lead-up to the Georgia flu outbreak and the life of actor Arthur Leander, and weeks in the life of The Travelling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians who move from settlement to settlement, trying to entertain the people left behind with the plays of Shakespeare. Even Shakespeare, they reason, wrote and performed during the plague.
The Travelling Symphony are a charming creation. A rag tag group of survivors and even some children who know no other world, a group who want to tell stories from the past, who seem to still believe that after the world is destroyed and being made anew, Shakespeare will continue to make sense. They may perform the bard’s classics but their little motto (“Survival is Insufficient”) is lifted from Star Trek: Voyager — funny and yet strangely apt. In a world where you cling to whatever parts of the past made sense, it’s just as likely that Shakespeare’s plays will last the way remnants of a show about venturing into the unknown depths of space does.
The narrative makes certain connections fairly quickly. Kirsten, the young actor with the Symphony is the same girl who saw Arthur Leander die on stage all those years ago. She may not remember the horrific few years immediately following the outbreak (the violence of what happens after civilisation breaks down is hinted at in Kirsten’s trauma-induced loss of memory), but she remembers Arthur being kind to her when she was a child actor and giving her a set of comics written and drawn by his ex-wife. Kirsten now obsessively collects any gossip magazines she can scavenge, searching for information on who Arthur may have been and what his life had been like. Meanwhile, via the parallel narrative, Mandel tells us the story Kirsten is so desperate to know — that of Arthur’s life, his relationships, his marriages and most importantly, that of the comic book created by his first wife, Miranda, about a group of humans travelling in space searching for a new home. The comic is called Station Eleven and it is almost a meta-narrative to that of Mandel’s book. There are many dots to connect between the two, if you’re paying attention.
The Travelling Symphony arrive at a town called St Deborah by the Water, where two years ago they left behind a couple from their troop who were expecting a baby so as to ensure a safer delivery for the child than they could offer on the road. They can’t find the couple or the child and something has changed drastically in the town since they were there last — the presence of ‘the prophet’ is ominous and Kirsten is warned by one of the townspeople to “stop asking questions and tell your people to leave here as quickly as possible.” A stowaway hides in the Symphony’s caravans as they leave, propelling the narrative into its final, definitive arc.
The prophet, it seems, is far more dangerous than we had assumed. Who is he? Why does his dog have the same name as that of a pet in the Station Eleven comics? The prophet’s entrance injects a sharp element of danger into the story, adding an urgency that had been missing earlier. The general air of this post-apocalyptic world for most of the book is one of worry, but not panic or danger which may seem strange to some but if only one per cent of the world has survived and it had been years since the actual pandemic, perhaps it is believable that humanity has not descended entirely into constant violence. There are — ultimately — not so many people left. Why is it so hard to believe that they may not want to kill each other? Violence does ensue, but it isn’t the sort you’d expect.
The prophet is the villain of the piece, believing himself to be doing the work of a higher order, as prophets do. “All of this,” he says, “all of our activities … all your suffering, it’s all part of a greater plan.” “This world,” he believes, “is an ocean of darkness.” But for The Travelling Symphony, the world still contains art, theatre, stories, magic.
Obviously any survivors in a village in rural China who have been living off their land and their own labour for generations before a pandemic hit wouldn’t have been as affected as certain members of The Travelling Symphony were, but Mandel’s focus is on those who had a great deal and now have nothing at all. These are the survivors who now must choose what of the old world is good enough to remember and recreate in the new. If you could take the best of the past with you into the future, what would you choose? And could you really ever make sure that the worst stayed behind?
Station Eleven is crafted with great love. The prose is often lovely, neat and lean, the pace is thoughtful and it’s a sad, sweet story that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers at the end of the world. Mandel seems to accept that perhaps it won’t all go down in mayhem and flames, that perhaps, as Kirsten thinks, “soon humanity would simply flicker out”, and it would be “more peaceful than sad.”