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Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel, Kirsten Potter

This story more or less revolves around the character Arthur Leander, a Canadian actor who died of a heart attack the day the Georgia Flu hit North America. Jumping back and forth in the timeline, the tale shows how things were before the pandemic and after, how certain characters were influenced, or not, by Arthur. Quite frankly, I wasn’t particularly interested in Arthur, but he served as an anchor point for the story.

First, let’s chat about that timeline. It’s not too confusing, but I did have to pay attention in order to figure out when I was on the timeline every time we switched characters. The story starts off in the here and now with Arthur Leander about to play King Lear on stage in Toronto. Once the flu disaster is off to a good start, we jump ahead 20 years to the Traveling Symphony, which hangs out by Lake Michigan. Throughout, the story will jump back to before the disaster and we learn more about Leander’s life. Also, there are a few times when the timeline jumps to 15 years after the disaster when Kirsten Raymonde is giving an interview to a newly risen newspaper. In general, I didn’t mind that it jumped around so much. If the story had been laid out chronologically, I would have lost interest with Leander’s life and given up on the book. However, with Arthur Leander’s life being chopped up in smaller bits, I was OK with it.

Kirsten Raymonde was my favorite character. She briefly knew Arthur because she was one of the three little girls playing non-speaking roles in King Lear in Toronto. Mostly, the reader gets to know her as an adult living in Year 20 (20 years after the flu hit North America). She’s an actress and lives with the Traveling Symphony, which is the combination of a defunct military orchestra and an acting troupe. They have been traveling a circuit near Lake Michigan for years and it is usually a safe existence. She remembers very little from the time before the disaster and I think this is why she has held on tightly to three things from that time – anything she can find on Arthur Leander, her Doctor 11 comic books (limited prints), and a fanciful paperweight.

Everyone in the Traveling Symphony is armed in one way or another and everyone contributes in some way. Some folks track and hunt, others sew and cook. There are no traditional male and female roles in the troupe and I really liked this aspect. Most people cross train to some extent to be able to pick up the slack when necessary. I was very surprised by how organized the troupe was. The Conductor, who leads the Traveling Symphony, is ex-military and she has made sure that everyone can move quickly and quietly in an efficient manner when necessary. They have procedures in place for when someone becomes separated from the group. The long familiarity of the group with each other and these rules allowed me to focus on the characters and what life had become a generation after the pandemic. So much of the societal collapse subgenre deals with the immediate aftermath (and that’s all entertaining), but this book had a nice long breather between that madness of immediate government collapse and the story contained in this book.

The Doctor 11 comic books (there’s only two of them), play a bigger role than I initially thought. They are introduced pretty early on as Kirsten likes to read them often. The author is a bit of a mystery and Kirsten searches for further books in the series whenever she gets a chance. Right off, I wanted to know more about these comics and much later in the book, we do learn more about them. In fact, we get to meet the author before the collapse. Also, Kirsten isn’t the only one who has been influenced by them, but we don’t learn more about that until near the end. I really liked how this story of a future scientist built a living, breathing ship of sorts, kind of a small planet, and yet he grieves over the Earth he has lost.

Jeevan was my second favorite character. He’s there at the beginning. He’s had a lot of jobs over the years, trying to find his place in the world. Lately, he’s been a paparazzo and even more recently he has trained as an EMT. In fact, he’s in the audience when Arthur Leander collapses from a heart attack and his experience in trying to save him cements his ideas of becoming a licensed EMT. But then the Georgia Flu hits Toronto and he has to get supplies up to his brother’s 22nd floor apartment. Ha! That was amusing. Then Jeevan and Frank watch from on high as the world spins down. Jeevan doesn’t appear again in the story for some time and I was sad that we got so little of him after this initial appearance.

The plot, after the world pandemic in Year 20, involves the Traveling Symphony running into a prophet and his mostly reluctant followers as they return to a city to locate their once pregnant band member Charlie and her beau Jeremy. It quickly becomes apparent that they don’t want to hang out in this town for very long, so they put on a show and then quietly and quickly pack up and leave. They’ve had word that Charlie and Jeremy and their baby have headed south, possibly to the Museum of Civilization at the Severn City airport.

This plot line was way more interesting to me than Arthur Leander’s life and I wish the book had spent more time on it. The prophet has a lot of power, even if his people give it to him grudgingly. There’s a lot of psychology going on beneath it all, about authority figures, the young and easily influenced, and wrapping it up in a religious cloth. So I think more could have been done with this. Still, there’s plenty of mystery and tension and trying to quietly flee while also keeping hold of everyone in the Symphony. Then there is the additional mystery of the Museum of Civilization and what kind of people live there. That’s covered in another time leap backwards, again with people who knew Arthur Leander. That little bit was my second favorite little plot line of the book.

Over all, I am glad I gave it a read. It’s not your typical ‘world is ending’ story, being much calmer and less dramatic. This allowed for more character development, which I liked. While I didn’t care much for Arthur Leander, his character acted as this touchstone for the rest of the tale. I do wish he had been more interesting, but then I might have been sad that he died.

Narration: Kirsten Potter was a fine narrator for this story. She had distinct voices for each of the characters and her male voices were believable. I especially liked her somewhat melancholy voice for the character Kirsten Raymonde. She also did the few required accents quite well. Her voice for the prophet was sometimes chilling!