The Earth is destroyed, the satellite colony Station Eleven fallen through a wormhole, lost in space, Doctor Eleven trying to maintain hope and order, his faithful dog Luli by his side as he struggles against the Seahorses of the Undersea realm. How will the story end? Kirsten Raymonde does not know. The first two issues of the comic book Station Eleven are among her most prized possessions, and for years as she has existed among the ruins of what was once the mighty empire of North America she has hoped to find the continuation.
It is twenty years since the Georgia Flu touched down in Toronto, twenty years since society collapsed in a matter of days, the world gone dark as hospitals overflowed and international travel shut down overnight, then the television stations and the Internet, then the electric grid. She remembers the night it happened, but the years immediately after are lost to her; before his death, her elder brother who took care of her in that time told her it was for the best she remained ignorant.
The winner of the 2015 Arthur C Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year, like Jane Rogers’ 2012 selection The Testament of Jesse Lamb, Mandel’s success continues their trend of championing an unexpected title where the science fiction elements are almost tangential to the narrative, here a tangled web of lives linked by a shared past of near misses.
It begins with urgency, breathless paragraphs as a quite literal Shakespearean tragedy plays out on the pages, a past-his-prime actor performing what he insists is the role he had waited his whole life to be old enough to play who collapses and dies on stage despite the efforts of the paramedic sat in the front row.
While it cannot compare to the major modern works of plague, Stephen King’s The Stand or Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the latter directly referenced and acknowledged by Mandel, nor does it attempt to. Rather than charting the spreading infection and death toll, any passages of the early days are told through the safety net of flashback, quarantined in the past.
Instead, what is important is the survivors and what they do, and at the core of the story is the Travelling Symphony, carrying hope and music in their hearts, their instruments and their weapons in their hands, their motto sourced from Star Trek Voyager of all things, “Survival is insufficient.”
There are allusions to other works, some of the troupe who have accepted the loss of their former lives taking the names of their instruments in the same way the outsiders of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 took the names of the books they had memorised, but inevitably it comes back to Shakespeare, their audiences finding more comfort in his classic works than more modern pieces which allude to a baseline normality which is too painful to recall, the recent past a sundered lifetime away.
If the story is familiar, the prose is delicate and beautiful, but inevitably there is danger on the roads, and in the town of St Deborah by the Water the troupe comes across the Prophet who has turned the plague into a doomsday cult (his words “that flu was our flood” echoing Margaret Atwood’s “flood without water” of her Oryx and Crake trilogy), Mandel generating genuine fear when the company find themselves deep inside hostile territory and surrounded without even having realised they had exposed themselves.