I don’t have one favorite author, but if the criteria is specific enough, I might be able to choose someone. Until this week, if someone had put a gun to my head and said, “Name your favorite living female Canadian author of speculative fiction! Now!” I would have answered Margaret Atwood without hesitation. If you only know Margaret Atwood from The Handmaid’s Tale, then you need to read The Blind Assassin immediately. No, really. Right now. After that you really ought to read the Madd Addam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, Madd Addam). But, I digress… the point I was getting around to making is that Margaret now has a strong challenger for the (highly coveted) title of my favorite living female Canadian author of speculative fiction because this week I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
I love a terrifyingly plausible pandemic story. I don’t know why, because if I imagine myself in that scenario, I know I’m going down. I mean, I get sick every winter, so there’s that. If I somehow managed to survive the illness, I would never be tough enough to survive the collapse of society. I’m a pacifist vegetarian nerd. I’ll be at the mercy of the first roving band of gun toting lunatics and I don’t exactly have a skill set that would make me a valuable gang member. I suppose I could knit everyone hats while they go out and forage for food? I know a lot of math, so… nope. I’ve got nothing.
I tend to approach books in the sci-fi/speculative fiction realm with cautious optimism. All too often authors rely on an interesting premise to carry the story. Not so in this case. In the aftermath of the plague most people have settled into small, mostly permanent communities, but a group of nomadic actors and musicians travels from settlement to settlement. I love that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic vision includes a Traveling Symphony. Through their journeys, we encounter new people and places that move the story through some surprising twists and turns.
Station Eleven is artfully constructed and here is where I feel like I need to confess that I probably missed some of the artfulness. I suspect that I would have caught even more if I were better versed in Shakespeare. Both King Lear and A Midsummer Nights Dream feature prominently in the story and I know there is significance to that and I should probably write a letter of apology to my 12th grade English teacher for not knowing what it is (sorry, Mr. Ceci!). The good news is, the book is still engaging and challenging and thought provoking even if you don’t connect all of the dots.
The book begins (and ends) with the death of Arthur Leander. Arthur is an everyman who happens to be a famous movie star, but we don’t know anything about him when he dies in the first pages of the book. Arthur is the thread that runs through the rest of the story. All characters of significance have some connection back to Arthur.
Since Arthur and almost everyone else in the world dies in the first chapter, much of the story unfolds in flashbacks. The story is also moving forward into what could be the near future. Mandel fluidly interweaves these timelines and uses them to reveal just enough information about the characters at just the right time. The result is the feeling that we are developing relationships with the characters without any of that awkward oversharing of a too-eager author. For the most part, the characters are regular people faced with extraordinary circumstances and their reactions and the relationships they form make sense even when they are extreme.
This book about the end of the world communicates a fundamental belief in the goodness and beauty of humanity, but doesn’t insult the reader by preaching about it. After the apocalypse, there are still artists, musicians, writers, and museum curators. There is still love, family, and community. There is hope. There’s no coffee, though, so the living probably envy the dead.
Pick an oddly specific set of criteria and leave a comment with your favorite book or author that fits the bill. Who’s your favorite dead white guy that wrote about war? Favorite Asian-American romance novelist? Favorite memoir in which food does not play a prominent role?
Also, check out Think Geek for plush microbes and germs. They are snuggly and scary.