Monday, October 10, 2016

2015 Clarke: STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

If you've been reading along, you know I have a soft spot for when writers who are taken more seriously in literary circles try their hand at science fiction. This has become more and more common in the last decade or so, but awards nominators seem uninterested, so I haven't had a lot of opportunity to review many of these books under the purview of this blog (though I do sometimes anyway). The Arthur C. Clarke award, which gave its fist novel trophy to Margaret Atwood, is a little friendlier to the lit crowd than most, and their 2015 award went to this finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. I continue to think that genre and literary writers each bring something to the table.

Mandel's book mostly follows the collapse of civilization due to an extremely virulent epidemic that people call the Georgia Flu (originating in the European nation rather than the American state but quickly spreading through air travel). We get scenes of the immediate aftermath, a "present day" story twenty years after the epidemic that focuses on a traveling symphony/Shakespeare-performing dramatic company where our main character Kirsten Raymonde. We also return continually to the the life of famous actor Arthur Leander, who died onstage the night that the Georgia Flu arrived in Toronto. Kirsten likes to escape into the world of space opera comics about a character named Dr. Eleven, who lives on the titular Station Eleven. These stories of creative expression and survival in the past, present, and future weave in and out of each other throughout the novel, building a case, I think, for the idea that we influence each other in deep, abiding, and sometimes surprising ways that can leave ripples that survive past death and even the end of the world.

Mandel is a great writer, and she creates some really beautiful moments, even if this isn't the most innovative post-apocalyptic scenario or the most compelling plot. Some of the connections (and especially the reunions) here border on contrivance, and my biggest complaint is just how familiar this non-linear structure has become in 21st-century lit fic.

With its evocative prose and rich characters but unoriginal sf plot, this is almost the exact opposite of The Three-Body Problem, but I really enjoyed both books.

Grade: A-