Imagine the world as you know it, whether as techno-commercialist, an antiquarian yesteryear, a back to the earth environmentalist, or simply as a bookworm visiting a relative in a hospital curled up in a waiting room with a good book and without warning everyone around you turns into a heaving sickly mass of cells. Then imagine that you are one of the few that survive, you don’t get sick. It is this world that Emily St. John Mandel writes about in Station Eleven. A particularly virulent of the swine flu emanating from the Republic of Georgia in the former USSR unleashes itself among the world, killing most within a short period — days; the incubation period is three to four hours. This is not a terrorist plot; it is more akin to the bygone days of plague run amuck. The world shuts down, for there is no one left to fly planes, staff hospitals, run restaurants, operate television and radio stations, manufacture and sell medicine, batteries and other essentials as well as luxury items. The internet and social media collapses. What’s left? Music, Shakespeare, and humanity returned to its most basic level. With these three things–the world can begin again, and it does as small bands of people return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with an intermingling of small “family” farms.
A traveling symphony, the remnants of a troupe of actors and symphony with the occasional person joining along the way, travel from Toronto to Michigan and other parts putting on Shakespeare plays and classical concerts. In a nearby town, a group of survivors band together and restart life in an abandoned airport. In Virginia, yet another band of survivors are making their live over. A man calling himself The Prophet quotes Revelation, forms a polygamous cult and claims the pandemic was God’s punishment and that he is the messenger/enforcer. All of the characters have some connection to a production of King Lear that abruptly ends when the actor playing King Lear dies on stage from an apparent heart attack, though his symptoms earlier in the day point to a contagion that has already begun its insidious attack.
Unlike most novels, there is no rough beginning, and Mandel’s use of language is near flawless. Only two quirks which were troublesome to this reader. Both centered around the character, the paramedic in training who tries to save the actor in the King Lear production. Because of the passage of time, or chapters, depending on how you look at it, a reader can get him confused with some of the traveling symphony. He is, and is not, a central character though he represented to this reader an example of the instability of this world. Arthur who portrayed King Lear and the Prophet were more extreme examples representing the dangerous elements of instability. The other quirk which was never explained was how the paramedic got to Virginia, assuming where Virginia and Toronto are where they are now and the given that travel afar was taking your life in your hands, not for the hardy soul as there was no form of motorized transport in the early days of this new brave world.
There are the humorous aspects of the narrative–the Museum of Civilization in a room made out to resemble a Sky Club room with the ipods, ipads, smart phones lined up on display beside the Amex credit card, driver’s licenses, stiletto heels, a motorcycle, automobile parts, and other things from the world before. Then there is the discussion between a former CEO and the museum’s curator/founder about the oddness and cliche nature of the English language — “shooting” an email for example.
Station Eleven ends with the world beginning anew as it must if there is music, literature, and humanity around. Read Station Eleven in this world or the next.