Arthur Leander, faded movie star and tabloid mainstay, seeks to jumpstart his career by starring in a stage production of King Lear. Sadly, the role will be his swan song; he suffers a heart attack and dies on stage, despite heroic efforts to save him. A poignant tragedy, but one the world will have little time to mourn.
Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.
The Georgia Flu has come ashore. The time from exposure to death is a matter of hours, and the flu is more than 99.9% fatal. Hospitals are overburdened within a day; panic spreads and society shorts out soon after. Within weeks, the world is effectively dead, except for small pockets of survivors who avoided contagion.
Kirstin Raymonde was a child actress sharing the stage with Leander when he died. Twenty years later, she is a member of The Traveling Symphony, a touring troupe plying Beethoven and Shakespeare among tiny settlements in the Great Lakes region. Their motto is their raison d’etre:
Because Survival is Insufficient.
In one of those little towns, The Symphony runs afoul of a violent cult leader called “The Prophet”, and their members start quietly disappearing. Kirstin, cut off from the rest of the troupe, will have to fight for her life. What she doesn’t know is that she has a secret connection to the Prophet, and holds an unsuspected key to his power. Arthur Leander spun out many threads in his outsized life, and several of them are about to tangle in wildly unexpected ways.
Station Eleven is an unusual novel: it’s a small, quiet, personal story of an apocalypse. It’s not angling to be the next blockbuster at the Cineplex, featuring Big Name Star fighting it out in the chaotic days of civilization’s collapse. It wants to sit with you in a quiet room and raise questions about who we are, and what makes life worth living. The near-extinction of the human race isn’t the point; it’s just the backdrop for the drama on stage.
Like any good speculative fiction, Station Eleven is really about our world now, not the brutalized future it’s set in. Mandel is less concerned with warning us against heading down the path to Armageddon than she is in getting us to appreciate what we have, while we still have it. I saw any number of reviewers describe Station Eleven as “elegiac”, which is the perfect word for it. It’s a somber, beautiful book, and the world it eulogizes is the one we live in right now. It wants you to consider the daily miracles we take for granted (she said, typing the words with a fingertip on a small pane of glass with no visible connections to anything else, but which nevertheless magically appear on the small pane of glass in front of you, wherever you are.)
We need art, and music, and stories; we need the people who create them, and we need to participate in their creation.
Because survival is insufficient.