With the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe, you may think it unwise to compound your worries by reading about a fictional collapse of civilisation brought about by a deadly flu pandemic. There are many anxious people trying to cope with the implications of Covid-19 who don’t need a fictional extinction-level virus in their lives.
But seeing as millions of viewers tuned in to watch 2011’s Contagion recently, there is apparently some appetite for doom-mongering epidemiological disasters. And if you’re going to pick something virus-related to consume, it way as well be this beautiful, evocative and — most importantly of all – hopeful novel.
Now, I’m the first to admit, some of my book reviews can be scathing. I think that’s because it’s often more fun to find fault than it is to fathom finesse, if you’ll excuse the alliteration. It’s certainly easier to pick holes.
That’s why this review of Station Eleven by Canadian author Emily St John Mandel was so difficult. If there’s one word I can use to describe the book, it’s “effortless”.
Effortless in the sense that I was never obstructed by some forced narrative technique, or distracted by a clumsy phrase or metaphor. I was taken by the hand around this fictional world, the events of interest pointed out but never laboured over, and never was my hand squeezed too tight, or my head shoved to examine something of little import. It was effortless storytelling.
That makes it difficult to analyse. It kind of washed over me, leaving an evocation of regret in its wake — for that seemed to me the central theme.
A bleak FLUture
To give you a brief overview: a deadly plague has swept the Earth, leaving a few pockets of survivors carving out a life in a world devoid of civilisation as we once knew it. The narrative follows a travelling symphony, bringing music and Shakespeare to small settlements around the coast of Lake Michigan.
The book is split between events leading up to the initial spread of the contagion, and roughly twenty years after the mankind’s last commercial flight took off.
The characters whose lives are explored before the fall are almost uniformly unhappy, enduring the consequences of life choices that strangled their optimism or creativity or ability to forge meaningful relationships. It feels like a modern parable, encouraging us to take stock of our lives and grasp the opportunities that society affords us.
Meanwhile, there’s this almost Homeric idea of immortality through art. Two artists are prominently mentioned: Shakespeare, and the fictional, unpublished comic book artist Miranda Carroll, whose work lends itself to the story’s title. Station Eleven was a labour of love — a sci-fi comic book that Miranda had printed to the tune of 10 copies — but its legacy is profound. We learn through the course of the book how a couple of copies arrive in the possession of survivors, becoming items of obsession for their owners, though in wildly disparate ways.
I like that: the idea of an undistributed comic book becoming an object of huge importance to people who are completely ignorant of its origin. Indeed, the immortality was the art’s, not the artist’s, who remained practically anonymous to her posthumous fans.
Road to nowhere
I also appreciated one thing that most post-apocalyptic stories forego: hope. Here is a world shorn of civilisation, yet there remains art and culture, and communities struggling to reclaim some semblance of order from the chaos. It’s that hope that drives the story.
Compare that with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — impossibly bleak and depressing, there’s not one iota of hope in that miserable book (as remarkable a tale it may be). It was refreshing to finally have that glimpse of a future blossoming from the post-apocalyptic mire.
And, frankly, I find hope’s inclusion more believable. Yes, there’s the cliché of a post-apocalyptic death cult to deal with, but otherwise this vision of settlements pooling resources, founding communities, relaunching newspapers and learning from scratch how to live off the land is something I can more readily accept. Human endeavour is mightier than most sci-fi authors admit.
To read, or not to read?
Station Eleven is a gripping story, full of vivid characters, subtle but haunting imagery and a couple of expertly crafted scenes that made my skin shiver from the base of my spine to the back of my skull.
But most of all, this book got me thinking — really thinking — about my life, about my work, my creativity, my relationships with friends and family, about my country and its people. And that’s what good sci-fi does: holds a distorted mirror up to our lives and makes you question what you see.
And though we live in strange times, under lockdown and worrying about our vulnerable loved ones, remind yourself that things cannot get as bad as they do in these fictional whimsies, and revel in the notion of the novel’s implied human perseverance. It makes the point: We will make it through this.
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