(or: on the subject of Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel)
DAY ONE The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb. News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.
WEEK TWO Civilization has crumbled.
YEAR TWENTY A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.
But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.
Except, Station Eleven isn’t really about what it’s about. Which is to say, it’s not about the plot (however pertinent the plot, in an ebola-fearing-world), and I’m not sure it’s really much about the characters either. At least one of the front-flap listed characters barely appears twice, and the majority of the others, you don’t really get to know that well, nor do they really change or develop - not even Kirsten, with whom you spend the most time. Things happen, they experience them. You see some of them move between past and present, but you don’t see a huge amount of the things that you know have really shaped them.
Information comes to you through the narration, more than through the way characters speak and behave - but I really like that approach. It feels less revelatory. It lets you put yourself into the places of the novel. I don’t think you really need to know how the Prophet becomes the Prophet through great dramatic moments - you get the set up, and then, you all instinctively know how this works, because you know how humanity is: a little shonky interpretation of a text here, a little desperate desire for hope there, and hey, you got yourself a cult. Especially if you’re living at the end of the world.
You might think all of that sounds negative and not very good. But you’d be wrong. Station Eleven is all about the mood. It’s about how you’d feel facing the end of your world, and what you might do if you find yourself surviving (though, among the things that survivors do, teaching kids basic maths ought to be more important than nostalgic history, people in Severn City, if, y’know, you wanna rebuild a world - I bet we wouldn’t though) - and what would make it more bearable for you.
You see a little Shakespeare - some Lear, and some Dream - a little regret, and a little hope; a little madness, a little magic. A little Star Trek, a little poetry. You get a little countryside, some small towns, a minor city. It’s nice to see what the ‘ordinary’ places make of the end of times, as opposed to the world’s major cities. It’s nice to think that ordinary daily life in little communities that pull together can make the future happen (and that’s why a virus like a flu pandemic is a great device for this kind of story, because people die, but the landscape remains).
And, as someone who spent four years of school in a jazz band with flutes (don’t ask) I appreciated this:
Someone - probably Sayid - had written, “Sartre: Hell is other people” in pen inside one of the caravans, and someone else had scratched out “other people” and substituted “flutes.”
Most ‘post-apocalyptic’ (if it really was the apocalypse, you couldn’t be ‘post-’, shush now) novels make me quake with fear for the future of humanity. This didn’t. It was a little melancholy sure, but there was some sunlight and good things. It’ll be nice. We’ll be fine.