Science fiction or literary fiction? Station Eleven might be classified as science fiction but it’s really and truly a literary tale canvassing generations of people before and after an apocalyptic event. Beautifully written with evocative prose and character builds, this is a book you really shouldn’t miss. It was nominated for several awards and won the Arthur C. Clark award. Hardcover | Knopf | 2014 | 336pp
The story beings with Arthur Leander. He’s an extremely popular Hollywood actor who has taken some time to go back to the stage to perform Shakespeare. On a Toronto stage, he collapses mid-verse and dies from a heart attack, narrowly missing the end of the world. But Leander lives on, at least in memory.
This is the first night that the Georgian Flu erupted. There had been something on the news about a deadly flu-like virus in the Georgia state of the Soviet Republic. After a plane filled with patient zeros landed in Toronto, the hospitals quickly filled up. Those who exhibited symptoms were dead in forty-eight hours, and the virus passed to each person so quickly, there wasn’t enough time to initiate a helpful quarantine. Within weeks, 99.9% of the human population was dead.
“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, please, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in doing so, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
The story goes back and forth from pre- to post-apocalypse and in the center of it all is Arthur Leander. He was a Hollywood actor who ‘hit it bigtime’. Coming from a small Canadian island, he quickly got submersed in the Hollywood lifestyle, to be expected. He had three ex-wives and lived a jubilant but perhaps lonely life. It was at the end when he made changes, such as moving back to true theater and wanting to establish a relationship with his son from his second wife.
Kirsten was a child actress who was on stage when he died. She was fond of Arthur and his death was a memory she clung to probably because it happened right when everyone else died from the flu. Twenty years later, she’s in a traveling symphony performing Shakespeare from town to town. Whenever she has the chance, she collects whatever memorabilia on Arthur that she can salvage from vacant, crumbling buildings.
Miranda was Arthur’s first wife. Before, during and after the marriage she worked on her Station Eleven series – a graphic novel set about a colonized space station of inhabitants who largely just want to go home. When they were finally complete, she gave copies to Arthur who passed them off to Kristen and to his son.
Jeevan was also there at the theater the night Arthur died. He was a paramedic sitting in the front who recognized Arthur’s symptoms before he collapsed. He was the one who leaped onto the stage to administer CPR, to no avail. It was on his way home when his friend, a doctor in the hospital, called to tell him what was going on, told him to get out of town fast. Instead he buys almost everything he can from a grocery store, way before the mob hits, and hunkers down in his brother’s apartment, managing to avoid contagion.
Clark was one of Arthur’s best friends in their youth. While Clark had turned to business, Arthur had made it big. He was the one who had to call Miranda and notify her of his death. After getting on an airplane to attend his funeral, he was stranded at the airport along with dozens of other people. When they realized that no help would be coming, Clark began a museum in the airport dedicated to objects of their former life such as cell phones, computers, and stiletto shoes.
On the same flight back to Toronto had been Arthur’s second wife and son. They eventually left with a group of religious fanatics and it is years later when Clark hears about them again.
Most of the story revolves around Kristen and her traveling band of performers. And those that had once been connected merge when Kristen and her friends wander into a small town that had been overtaken by the ‘prophet’. He’s not the nicest sort and to make a long story short, they’re forced to flee. They get separated but the plans are to meet at the airport, the same airport where Clark lives.
Like any post-apocalyptic tale, there’s death and there’s violence. But it’s grazed over lightly, nothing gratuitous. It isn’t meant to be the plot or the nail-biting action sequence. It’s just simply there. It’s there to illustrate a much bigger picture.
At first I laughed when I thought of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, a game in which we all try to figure out how we are connected to the actor. It really does ring a bell here, doesn’t it? And it does, but there is something else that the author is hinting at, and thinking about it – well, it’s haunting. It isn’t about Arthur Leander and it isn’t about the other characters. It’s about the things you leave behind, and how those things effect the lives of other people – even the smallest of things.
In this respect, it could have been a little bit more. It could have been the way Arthur treated people or the emotional havoc he caused or the love that he inspired. Instead it was about a set of graphic novels he gave away, about a crystal ball that was a gift, his death on stage. Still – the notion of the smallest things you leave behind with no intention of aftermath whatsoever, can leave deep and lasting impressions. I don’t know about you, but that bothers me! Which is what makes this a truly tremendous book.
Then, of course, are all of the people who survived the apocalypse who had ties with Arthur and who eventually find these connections. Again, this isn’t about Arthur – it could have been anyone. The story proves the point that we are all connected even if we don’t realize it.
Aside from that, there is the name of the book – Station Eleven. It is the same name of the graphic novels that Miranda had created about a bunch of ‘survivors’ who just want to go home. The connection is obvious: while the Station Eleven inhabitants want to go home, the survivors of the Georgian Flu also want to go home, a home that only exists in their memories.
Station Eleven is highly suggested to EVERYONE.
by Emily St. John Mandel