Friday, February 20, 2015

Science Fiction: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This is yet another novel that was nominated for a 2014 Goodreads Choice Award. I had already added Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven to my always present and incredibly long "to read" list, but went ahead and purchased it not only because it was nominated, but also because the always awesome staff at BookPeople in Austin, Texas had featured it on the "New Fiction" shelf, and there was only one copy left. And let me just begin by saying, I now get what all of the fuss was about.

The Situation: Arthur Leander has just collapsed onstage while playing the title role in William Shakespeare's King Lear. As former journalist-turned paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary rushes onstage from the audience to perform CPR, most everyone else in the audience and on the stage still haven't quite figured out that Arthur is no longer acting. But once the curtain actually drops, and all attempts to revive Arthur fails, the world begins to become a completely different place, and not because a famous actor has just died. 

The Problem: Jeevan never reaches his apartment after leaving the theater, as a frantic phone call from a friend of his working in a hospital emergency room informs him that a deadly and fast-spreading flu is infecting seemingly everyone. After stocking up on supplies at a nearby grocery store, Jeevan arrives at his brother Frank's apartment, barricades them both inside, and waits. Over the next few days and months, the world, as everyone knew it, ends. Planes will no longer fly. Cars will cease to be used or even useful as gasoline goes stale. Electricity will no longer be generated. And luxuries such as the Internet and wifi will cease to exist. The population around the globe will dwindle to only the few who were either lucky/resourceful enough to survive, and those who happen to be immune. In the years that follow, small pockets of civilization will pop up, built by those that wish to remain in one place, while some, like Kirsten Raymonde, will travel with her fellow actors and musicians, performing Shakespeare for the survivors they find along the way. But such traveling means a risk of encountering people like The Prophet, who insists that the plague happened as a way to weed out the darkness and leave only the good behind. Not only does he believe himself to be "the light," but he also manages to recruit followers that help him raid other towns, stealing their weapons and ammunition for his own use. Station Eleven tells the story of a selected few before, during, and after the pandemic. All of them are somehow connected, mostly through Arthur, but also through the struggle to survive the unimaginable. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction book that is alternately set in the past and in the future. Just as it changes focus between many of its characters, it also switches back and forth from before the plague and after, while also not neglecting the horrors of the early days when the sickness was at its most dangerous. Many post-apocalyptic novels focus almost entirely on the days after, with a little mention of what life was like before, and almost no mention of what it was like during the actual outbreak. Station Eleven meets the plague head on and talks about the struggle of early survival, glossing over nothing. Eventually, the reader is given both background and closure on pretty much every primary character that is introduced. Arthur is sort of the focal point and every other character seems to have some sort of link to him: Miranda, Arthur's first ex-wife, is the author of the comic book that features a Dr. Eleven. It's a story that makes it into the hands of several characters over the years. Clark is Arthur's best friend and is given the terrible task of notifying the family of his death, but ends up stranded in an airport once the flu hits, a place where he will end up spending the rest of his life. Kirsten was a child actress in the same production of King Lear that ended up being Arthur's last, and now continues performing Shakespeare with the traveling symphony. And Jeevan now uses his studies in paramedics to care for the sick or injured in the settlement he chose. Everyone is separate, but still linked, with their own stories of struggle and survival.

My Verdict: This book was much more involved and intricate than I had initially expected, but it was a nice surprise. Not only does Mandel tie everyone's stories together in just the way that I like, but she also manages to fully explore the scenario of the apocalypse. Instead of avoiding the tense and always heart-breaking detail of the early days of the pandemic, Mandel talks about it in detail, even with all of the difficulty that can come with writing about such a thing, but it ends up being incredibly worth it. The reader gets a fuller story, and I know I became more invested in humanity's next steps. And while post-apocalyptic stories are nothing new, Mandel managed to not have Station Eleven become either predictable or so incredibly dire and bleak that the story is hard to read. Not every scene is original, but they are somehow written in a way that makes them feel like they are. As I said in the introduction, I get now what all of the fuss was about. 

Favorite Moment: Any time when the reader was given even the slightest glimpse into how everyone's story was connected.

Favorite Character: There are a few options here, but I will select Arthur's first wife, Miranda. For one, I have always liked the name Miranda, so I was immediately somewhat biased. Second, she is someone who can get lost in writing and drawing for the comic book she made up, even though she doesn't necessarily intend to submit it anywhere for publication. She just likes drawing and creating for this imaginary world that she came up with, and people like that always interest me.

Recommended Reading: We all know they are many post-apocalyptic novels out there to choose from; however, I will recommend The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or even On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. 

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