Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel #RRSciFiMonth
I’ve just finished reading Station Eleven and absolutely loved it. I bought this book such a long time ago and since then have seen plenty of glowing reviews but for some reason I’ve hesitated to pick it up. I don’t think I really knew what to expect when I started to read and perhaps that was a good thing. What I did know was that it was a book about the end of civilisation and so I admit I was expecting a rather gloomy and foreboding read. What I found instead was a book that was actually quite beautiful with a cast of really well drawn characters whose lives touch in meaningful ways as the story unfolds. I was absolutely fascinated by this story and could barely tear myself away from the pages.
At the start of the novel we make the introduction of Arthur Leander, a successful actor currently appearing in a theatre production of King Leah who unfortunately suffers a heart attack and dies on stage. Jeevan Chaudhary is watching the play with his girlfriend and being a newly qualified EMT has recognised the signs and has rushed to Arthur’s aid. Meanwhile, watching the drama from the wings is a child actress named Kirsten Raymonde. This scene will remain one of her few memories of the time before the collapse of civilisation. Basically, the world is about to be devastated by a fast acting mutated flu virus that, much like the plague, will kill so many people that humans almost face extinction.
From here the plot does quite a lot of jumping around, back and forth to the years before the collapse and then jumping to approximately 20 years after and we get to follow the lives of these main characters as their paths intersect or once again come together. I have to applaud the style used here as really Arthur, having died in the opening stages of the book, should have very little input into the story but instead the way in which the story is told allows him to become the central focus for all the other characters, he’s the sun and they’re all orbiting him in some way.
In the pre collapse years we observe Arthur on his path to fame and fortune, his three failed marriages and ultimately his reflections on his own life just shortly before he passes away. It very much feels like Arthur has been acting out his own life rather than really living it, moving through the motions and casually dropping people along the way. His first wife Miranda is the one who has the biggest impact on him and although the relationship is ultimately doomed the two clearly still share feelings for each other. Miranda in fact also has an impact on the story. She’s an unusual character who seems herself to be something of a loner. Her life’s work has revolved around a graphic novel called Station Eleven that not only gives the book it’s title but has quite an impact on a couple of the key people. Station Eleven has an almost prophetic feel to it – we don’t really gain an insight into the full plot but we are given certain snippets. It seems that Miranda, at certain points is inserting parts of her own story into that of her graphic novel but in terms of other elements there is a strange reflective quality for what takes place in later years. For example, Station Eleven is a small space station, shaped like a planet, that due to damage is ultimately covered with water and little remote islands. Thinking about the environment after the collapse the towns themselves, whilst not surrounded by water, are themselves like isolated islands. There is no quick means of travelling from A to B and no way of easily connecting with other people. No phones, no internet, no planes or cars.
In the later years of the story we follow in the tracks of a theatre company called The Travelling Symphony. An eclectic bunch of characters who travel from town to town providing entertainment and music to the people they come across. It’s not an easy life – travelling in between places is dangerous to say the least, food must be hunted for but occasionally the relationships that spring up between the performers makes everything a little more easy to endure. Kirsten is a member of the company. Only a child before the collapse she remembers very little of civilisation. She has a tattoo on her arm that is a quote from Star Trek – even though she has no real memory of the show itself. She knows that as a child she experienced electricity, lighting at the flick of a switch, travel using planes and cars and yet these things are but distant memories – she knows they were a part of her life before but really she can’t recall them and they have a dreamlike quality in this new era of darkness.
At this point the plot diverges a little when the Travelling Symphony return to a town they previously played at, St. Deborah by the Water, but which seems to have undergone something of a transformation. It seems that the town is now in the grip of a new gang of characters headed by somebody known as ‘The Prophet’. Clearly St Deborah is not a safe place to travel through any longer and the travelling thespians leave in something of a hurry.
There were a number of things that I really loved about this book. First and foremost is the author’s ability to make these characters stand out. Their stories are so intriguing that I was captivated by them all. What makes this an even more impressive feat is that this isn’t a doorstopper sized novel and yet the author makes each of these characters compelling to read about. I literally cared for them and was in places scared for their safety. Which brings me to the next thing that really impressed me. Yes, this is a book that could be very dismal to read but it isn’t. We read about the slow collapse of so many things that we take for granted in our every day lives but rather than turn this into a blood battle with gangs of almost feral packs of people committing unspeakable acts in the name of survival, the book focuses on the people who are surviving and the lives they’re leading. Undoubtedly, over the years, terrible things have happened, and most of the survivors have the scars that bear witness to such acts but I found this intriguing and hopeful rather than gloomy and dreadful.
I thoroughly enjoyed Station 11 which is borne out by the fact that I devoured the book so quickly and have no hesitation in recommending it. If you want a compelling story full of heart then definitely give this a try.
This is my first book as part of Sci Fi month 2016. Details here if you want to come and enjoy the fun.