It's something of a golden era for dystopian fiction. Not only is there a wealth of great literature out there right now - from vampires to viruses - the audience is fully aware that the end of world is closer than it has been for some time.
Have you seen the news this week? The most dangerous ebola outbreak in west Africa since its discovery 40 years ago; the advent of a new Cold War; a biblical conflict in the Middle East. As a former teacher of mine said as Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait: "Spend your money and drink your wine."
Into this febrile atmosphere comes Station Eleven one of this summer's most eagerly awaited launches thanks to a vibrant twitter teaser camapaign that has raised expectations sky high. Emily St. John Mandel, the Canadian author of three previous novels, delivers spectacularly with a clever, nuanced and textured novel that I enjoyed from first word to last and was sorry to put down.
Station Eleven is successful - hugely successful - in part because it never settles into the staple rhythm of dystopian fiction: the panic buying, the mad flights from the Cities, the massed ranks of the dead. Instead we see these developments in small but perfectly formed vignettes. One well-informed character pushes numerous shopping carts full of water and supplies across snowy Toronto before the rest of the world wakes up to the crisis. Later we have an airliner quarantined on the tarmac at a rural airport far from the terminal-turned-home of other stranded fliers that serves both as a tomb to its passengers and a permament monument to the scale of the catastrophe. Time and again during this novel I reflected on what a clever writer Emily St. John Mandel is, how beautifully she tells her tale and how skilfully she pulls so many seemingly disparate strands together.
Station Eleven does not follow the obvious chronography of the end of civilisation. Instead it flits back and forth between events that begin some years before the virus that destroys society and about 25 after. Never do those shifts feel clumsy or jolting. Instead it comes with the quiet satisfaction of the completion of a complex jigsaw puzzle.
The story is told from five viewpoints but largely revolves around a troop of strolling players and musicians, the Travelling Symphony who wander Michigan and southern Ontario playing music and Shakespeare in the various makeshift communities that have sprung up in strip malls and small towns after the lights went out and the fuel tanks ran dry.
Kirsten Raymonde, a young actress with the Symphony is the glue whole at the centre of the various spokes,and the link between the electric past and the uncretain future.While the journeys of others allow us to ponder the state of our own society and what we have to lose, Kirsten's is imbued with a sense of ambition and hope.
Station Eleven is primarily successful because if weaves a subtle emotional intelligence into a Some of the scenes are impossibly poignant, much of the human insight searingly incisive and thought-provoking.
So, at its heart, Station Eleven not a novel about the end of one civilisation and the stuttering birth of a new society. This is a device that strips humanity bare and highlights our condition through its exploration of love and friendship and art and death and a host of other conditions.
It's quite brilliant. Read it.
Other dystopian fiction I enjoyed:
World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler
The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley
The Passage by Justin Cronin