Melancholy, lyrical and subtle is not how you would typically describe a science fiction novel, but Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is precisely that, this literary tale of survival imagines the downfall of civilization due to a flu epidemic. The key storylines are set before and after the pandemic, jumping around in time and place. There is a cast of characters connected somehow to a middle-aged actor named Arthur Leander. The pre-pandemic story focuses on Arthur, his three ex-wives, his best friend Clark, and Jeevan, a paramedic who tries to save Arthur’s life. Arthur’s ambition to be famous causes him to lose touch with those dearest to him and live a lonely life. At the beginning of the book, Arthur has a heart attack while playing King Lear on stage. Ironically, like King Lear before his death, Arthur transforms as he comes to terms with reality and chooses to make amends with those he loves. Unfortunately, his transformation transpires too late.In the world after the epidemic, the story centers on Kirstin, a young woman who witnessed Arthur's death as a child actor. She is now part of The Travelling Symphony, a theatre company that travels the post-apocalyptic wasteland bringing music and Shakespeare to the limited number of people who survived. Kristin clutches on to the memory of her brief childhood and a graphic novel, Station Eleven, Arthur gifted to her the night before the pandemic altered her world. It turns out the book’s creator was Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda. Miranda’s book is about a group of survivors who scramble to live on a manmade exoplanet that has slipped through a wormhole. Copies of the graphic novel and its plot resurface throughout, as do the characters from Arthur’s life. Moments from both the past and present are woven together to reveal the big picture of what occurred. Undoubtedly, the collective stories, from Shakespeare to graphic novels, connect everyone.
The disturbing and haunting narrative is remarkably tender, eloquently unfolding themes of survival, the fleeting quality of fame compared to the longevity of art, the impermanence of human life, and discernibly the love of the existing world and all its conveniences. It is refreshing to read an innovative approach to the genre and see the success of this novel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Emily St. John Mandel is a keynote speaker at Literary Orange 2015.