Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
a review by Rich Horton
The 2015 Hugos were famously corrupted by a slate of nominations sponsored primarily by Vox Day, called the Rabid Puppies. The eventual winner for Best Novel was a decent book, The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu; but it was clear to me there were better books out there. But what books might those be? To be honest, the extended nomination ballot wasn't tremendously inspiring. There were good books there: Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy (actually on the short list), Jo Walton's My Real Children, Charles Gannon's Trial By Fire, Andy Weir's The Martian, Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation. And numerous books I haven't read. But in all honesty, while all these books are fine, none struck me as obvious no doubt about it Hugo winners.
Where to go? How about outside the traditional genre writers? Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a book I have just read, prompted by the praise of Mark Tiedemann, and by the fact it was selected for the book club Mark runs at Left Bank Books in the Central West End of St. Louis. Mandel (a Canadian who lives in New York) has written three other novels, which seem to be mysteries of some sort, with literary chops. Station Eleven was her breakout, and it's sure enough Science Fiction. It was also a National Book Award finalist, and a bestseller. And it's a heck of a novel.
It opens in Toronto, roughly the present day (maybe slightly in the future). King Lear is being performed, starring Arthur Leander, once a major movie star but now slightly on the decline. In the middle of Act IV he has a heart attack, and dies onstage. Jeevan Chaudhury, training to be a paramedic, leaps on stage to try to save him, with no effect. Kirsten Raymonde is an 8 year old girl playing Cordelia as a child, and Jeevan ends up trying to comfort her. And in the ensuing hours, it becomes clear that a terrible disease, called the Georgian Flu, has reached Toronto, and indeed the rest of the world, and some 99% of the human population will die in the next few weeks.
The rest of the novel is anchored twenty years in the future, when Kirsten is a member of an acting/musical troupe in Michigan called the Traveling Symphony. (For some reason I was reminded of John Barth's Floating Opera.) They traverse a circuit of villages in the post-apocalyptic society that has succeeded the plague, performing Shakespeare and classical music. Kirsten's motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is "Survival is insufficient". It seems that the world, after a few years of scary chaos, has settled into a fairly peaceful subsistence economy, and that the Traveling Symphony is a welcome reminder of the glories of human achievement. Kirsten, who barely remembers her pre-plague life, treasures a few things from that time, mostly gossip magazines concerning Arthur Leander, and a privately printed comic book Arthur gave her, Station Eleven, written by someone signed only "M. C.".
The novel also focusses on the past: the life of Arthur and his three ex-wives prior to the Collapse. The most important of these women is Miranda Carroll, an art student who grew up on the same island as Arthur, Delano Island, off the coast of British Columbia. She was Arthur's first wife, and made a career as a shipping executive after they divorced, but her avocation was drawing the comic book Station Eleven. Arthur's second wife, the actress Elizabeth Colton, is important only in that she bore him his only son, Tyler. The other important person in Arthur's life is his best friend, Clark.
It becomes important (in a fairly coincidental fashion) that Kirsten, Tyler, Clark, and Jeevan are among the very few survivors of the Georgian Flu. When the Traveling Symphony comes to St. Deborah by the Water and finds it under the sway of a scary man called the Prophet, their existence is in danger, as the Prophet tries to claim one of them as his next wife (of several). They escape, but his people follow them. They make their way towards Severn City and its airport, which turns out to be where Clark fortuitously escaped to, while trying to go to Arthur's funeral. We can easily guess who the Prophet must be, and the main action of the story points toward a confrontation between the evil Prophet and the Traveling Symphony, which represents the hope of humaneness and art in this fraught future.
But that aspect, though important, isn't what gives this novel wings. The wings come from Station Eleven's affirmation of the importance of art, and of simple human goodness, in even a post-apocalyptic future. I have seen complaints that the novel is too optimistic -- surely, these critics seem to suggest, people are more evil than that. I admit to a certain disgust at such cynicism. Yes, there are plenty of bad people in the worlds -- the leaders of ISIS serve as an easy example, and I'm sure you can think of others -- but there are plenty of good people as well, and there is a lot of beauty. Some of this beauty, in this book, is represented in Miranda's comic book Station Eleven, and I first felt enraptured when the comic book was first described. There is enough darkness here to satisfy me, but in the end I was taken by the belief that if only a few of us survive, the bulk would form a hopeful society, and would fight to survive, and not only that, to find what might be "sufficient" beyond mere survival.
I think this is clearly the best SF novel I read from 2014. (Though William Gibson's The Peripheral is also very good!). It's worth noting that in SF terms it's not adventurous -- none of the ideas here would surprise a 1950s reader. The virtues here are not audacious SF ideation -- and I don't want to dismiss such virtues. But sometimes excellent writing, and characterization, and sound realization of a familiar idea, are entirely sufficient.