Kirsten Raymonde carries a violin and a dog-eared copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in her backpack. She also carries lethal throwing knives on her belt, and uses them to defend herself in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of “Station Eleven.”
Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel is usually classified as science fiction, and it did win the Arthur C. Clarke Award because it contains many of the familiar tropes of the genre — a deadly pandemic, the collapse of civilization, a small band of survivors struggling to maintain their humanity as they battle an inhuman foe. But compared to other killer-virus novels, “Station Eleven” contains very little science. There is no epidemiology of the disease, as in Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” or analysis of its transmission, as in Stephen King’s “The Stand.” Only one scene depicts a person suffering from the plague; most characters watch the fall of mankind on television, before the power goes out. Disease is usually a principal character in this genre, but in “Station Eleven,” the virulent virus does most of its work offstage.
Kirsten, the violinist with the deadly knives, is one of three central characters who appears in the opening chapter. She witnesses Arthur Leander, the lead actor of a “King Lear” production in Toronto, collapse with a heart attack on stage, as Jeevan Chaudhary rushes from the audience in a futile attempt to save Arthur. The virus breaks out that evening, and within a few dozen pages and a month of narrative time, the world is largely depopulated.
The novel then leaps forward twenty years, as Kirsten tours the Great Lakes region with the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who perform for small communities of survivors. A few chapters later, the focus turns to Arthur and the years before his death, and soon after the scene shifts to Jeevan’s escape from Toronto as the pandemic strikes. As the novel progresses, the time shifts become more frequent; readers who prefer linear narratives may find the novel disorienting. Almost as disorienting is the recurring juxtaposition of high and low culture — in addition to performing Beethoven and Shakespeare, the members of the Travelling Symphony share stories of favorite “Star Trek” episodes, and the title of the novel comes from a comic book. In the hands of some writers, the combination of so many time shifts and contrasting cultural references could have produced a mess of a narrative. Fortunately, Mandel is a masterful storyteller, and “Station Eleven” never loses focus. The multiple timelines share a theme of redemption: Arthur tries to atone for his failed marriages (he has three ex-wives, a subtle reference to the character he plays to his death), Jeevan seeks fulfillment after a series of self-centered career choices, and Kirsten agonizes over the lives she is forced to take in order to survive.
Mandel also succeeds in her description of life in the post-apocalyptic world. Those who lived before the plague pine not only for electricity and the Internet, but also for trivial pleasures like toiletries and citrus fruit. They struggle in explaining to children born after the pandemic that large metal objects could fly through the air, and it had been possible to have a conversation with someone on the other side of the planet. Any reader who has mourned for a prematurely cancelled television show, or hasn’t been able to convince her niece that computers haven’t been around forever, will be able to identify with Mandel’s characters as they search abandoned homes not only for food and fuel, but also clean towels and magazines.
Towards the end of the novel, the Travelling Symphony visits the Museum of Civilization, established in an airport terminal by another band of survivors. The Museum collects obsolete artifacts — iPhones, motorcycles, televisions — in order to commemorate the technological marvels of the pre-virus world, much as the Travelling Symphony strives to preserve a culture that nearly died along with the pandemic. The characters in “Station Eleven” care more about simply surviving, and this ambition distinguishes Mandel’s novel from contemporary works in the post-apocalyptic genre, which has been overrun by zombies (have zombies ever been the subject of interesting fiction?) and feature characters nearly as barbarous as their undead foes. The characters in “Station Eleven” lack the resources to re-create the world before the collapse, but their fondness for that world inspires them to turn their wasteland into a world fit for humanity.
The novel is not perfect — Mandel’s allusions to “King Lear” are a bit heavy-handed at times, and her principal antagonist, a religious zealot known as the Prophet, seems more fanatical than truly menacing. But these minor flaws do not significantly detract from her achievement. Much as Kirsten never feels at home in her brutish world, “Station Eleven” does not wear the label of science fiction well, because Mandel’s novel rises about the conventions of its genre, and deserves to be compared not to “I Am Legend” or “The Stand,” but rather to Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” another novel more concerned about humanity’s reaction to disease than the disease itself.