Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

One of the founding, though little remarked upon premises of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, is the idea that, regardless of what fate may befall humankind, the works of William Shakespeare will endure and even have something useful to offer. It’s an interesting idea, but like a lot of questions posed by this text it remains little explored in the end.

The novel largely concerns the experiences and travails of a travelling troupe of actors who, twenty years after the global population has been all but wiped out by the ‘Georgia Flu’, travel through a frontier like series of settlements on a repeating cycle performing plays and acts from the works of Shakespeare.

Each individual belonging to the troupe clings to traces of the past and fragments of memory as a means to keep their spirits up. Most notably one form this takes is in a two-volume set of graphic novels given to Kirsten, who is a central character and who received them when she was eight, at a time just before the pandemic erupted. The novel interweaves the trials the members of the troupe face in a dystopian world with the mundane goings on of their former lives. Much of this is unremarkable in isolation and, but for the context of the dystopia they find themselves in, would be otherwise poor fodder for fiction. Indeed, even in that context it makes for fairly dreary reading.

The troupe at times becomes separated and in their endeavours to reunite come into conflict with a ragtag group of desperados who are in the thrall of an individual known as the Prophet. The Prophet rules his followers with a merciless contempt for those who don’t adopt a brutal view of the art of survival. This is manifested as a general contempt for our heroes who aspire to a more optimistic view of the future. This aspect of the novel follows the usual pattern of the goodies versus the baddies and appears to be a nod in the direction of the need to provide gratuitous entertainment for the reader as much as anything.

For some readers the layering of scenes from the pre-pandemic era with those of the dystopian present create a perspective that in itself makes for enjoyable reading. A sort of casting of our daily events in an unimportant light when considered in the broader context of a complex modern world. For others the novel is just entertaining in its own right as a dystopian survival story. Read at this point in our own journey through the Covid-19 pandemic it prompted some interesting conversations but few answers to some of the more confounding questions about how humanity responds to crisis.

P.J. Hockey (Ballarat South Chapter)