From Mary Shelley to Margaret Atwood, I have a deep interest in women’s sf and speculative fiction. It is not just a question of perspective and hearing other voices. Rather, it simply that some of my favourite writers are in this tradition, such as Madeleine L’Engle, Judith Merrill, Ursula K. Le Guin, (a recent discovery) Octavia Butler, and, of course, the queen of magical sciences, J.K. Rowling. As a Canadian, I’m particularly on the lookout, since Margaret Atwood has risen to such literary heights, and there are always new and brilliant discoveries, such as Nalo Hopkinson’s challenging and worldview-bending fiction (think of a more strongly voiced Neil Gaiman-styled fantasy for the Afro-Carribean-American community). My attention was piqued, then, when I heard of Station Eleven, a book that has caught some buzz on my local campus.
And, honestly, Emily St. John Mandel had succeeded in creating something that I have been trying to conceive of for years. I have longed to create an apocalypse that was not really a disaster book but the lived stories of people as they experience a crisis and can only experience normal life through memory and artifact. What I stumbled over, again and again, was the linearity of the event, so that everything I conceived of had the trudging, onward stomp of endless journeying. Everything I attempted to outline became a refugee story, which I just didn’t feel was my story to tell. In particular, my characters were lost in the trope. What Mandel did, however, was create a sustained imaginative world after a pandemic where the characters live brilliantly in their own dark and light interior lives.
I have always suspected that the use of letters, memory, and artifacts could challenge the linearity of normal life-after-apocalypse storytelling. Mandel does use epistolary forms and memory, but she goes so much further.
First, she almost completely abandons a linear chronology. She does this by creating a central event: the staging of King Lear in present-day Toronto, with a famous actor as the lead as he is minutes away from a fatal heart attack. King Lear, then, functions as book-end and touchpoint throughout the narrative. The reader returns to this stage many times as we move across a life-long timeline of lives.
Second, Mandel creates a graphic novel-within-a-novel, an interior fictional world of stunning beauty and personality and intimate connection that serves as a second time-link to structure the non-structured chronology.
With deft literary and visual sophistication, Mandel uses both King Lear and the graphic novel, Station Eleven, as a routing mechanism for the narrative and as metaphorical suggestions of the main personalities in the novel. These tools, combined with a genius use of artifacts, open the reader to a rich literary experience that is not lacking in cultural criticism. The trekkie quote that structures the entire post-apocalyptic drive–“Survival is Insufficient”–is really a question of what it means to live today and echoes C.S. Lewis’ argument in “Learning in War-time” in 1939.
Station Eleven is constructed with a complex structure with a constantly shifting point of view, but the reader is never confused or struggling in the dark. I had to make a kind of mental character list and timeline, but that may be my weakness as a reader. There are costs to Mandel’s approach. After the first scene it takes a bit to get into the story, perhaps accentuated by the fact that the characters are sometimes despicable they are each struggling with their own narcissism. But this struggle with self has a deeply metaphorical purpose. This six-degrees-of-separation story of the end of civilization confirms the narcissism of the central character: all the people in the world do, in fact, orbit around the actor that plays King Lear. This cord of Station Eleven is so essential that to remove it would be collapse the whole, and so prominent that the novel suggests in its thematic design a kind of Providential guidance–an idea that is impossible within the diegetic world of its main characters.
Station Eleven is a book that has deeply impressed me, drawing me into its characters’ lives and making me see more possibility in the genre. Mandel wrote and published what I could only intimate and succeeded (no small feat) in making likable narcissists that the reader wants to spend the apocalypse hanging out with. This is a great literary achievement and is worthy of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best sf novel in 2015.
There is, however, one flaw–and a flaw that is nearly fatal for me. I will return on Thursday to consider that flaw because it is much larger than Emily St. John Mandel’s project. Meanwhile, here is an interview with the author on TVO. Canadian interviewers in the tradition of CBC tend to give authors a bit more space to talk than sound bite radio and TV elsewhere.