Survival is insufficient...

I'm rather a fan of apocalyptic fiction, and I now have a new novel to add to my list of all-time favourites. Right up there with The day of the triffids and A canticle for Leibowitz is Emily St. John Mandel's stunning and thought-provoking Station Eleven. Station Eleven was quite rightfully a National Book Award finalist in 2014 (one wonders why it didn't win).

The novel opens in a snowy Toronto, where an ageing movie star, Arthur Leander, darling of the paparazzi, has taken to the stage in an unusual production of King Lear. When he collapses with a heart attack and dies on stage, you know this story is going to be big news until well after the funeral. Unbeknown to everyone though there is just two weeks to go until a flu pandemic hits, 99% of earth's population will be wiped out, and nothing will ever be quite the same again, Arthur Leander's troubled life will be forgotten along with the lives and hopes of millions of others.

Moving between Leander's life as a star to the events leading up to his death, and then following the lives of 3 people who happened to intersect his life through the pandemic and twenty years beyond; Mandel's novel is both a love song to modern life, a reminder of what we stand to lose, and a hope for the future that even in the worst situations civilization can survive through compassion, love, humanity's own inbuilt need to be gregarious, and culture.

As the Traveling Symphony makes its way around the 49th parallel (whose borders are no more) with its mix of musicians, actors and dancers; you know that this changed earth is going to live. The characters will die, sadly - as one small child realises to her horror - a lot younger than current life expectancy; but in a very real sense they will live; culture and society will still underpin their lives, perhaps in a deeper sense than in the modern world which has been left behind.

This is such a beautiful novel. Well written, sometimes horrifying, occasionally funny - I loved the grafitti on the Traveling Symphony tour bus in which the Sartre quote "Hell is other people" is amended to "Hell is flutes".

The melding of low and high culture into a sustaining whole post-apocalypse is vitally important to the story. Painted on the side of the Traveling Symphony's coach are the words "Survival is insufficient", a quote from Star Trek: Voyager. This quote lies at the heart of the musicians and actors lives in their post-pandemic world. They know that survival by itself is not enough, they need something more to sustain them. And in an odd way, many of the survivors who have long memories pre-pandemic recognise that their pre-flu lives were just surviving. It's no accident that Leander wishes to see his son again the evening of his death; while a character stranded at an airport will regret 20 years later that his final phone call was to his boss, and not to to his family.

It's an eerie, uncomfortable read; but also oddly uplifting. A wonderful addition to the canon of top post-apocalyptic fiction.

For more information on Station Eleven, and a fascinating interview with the author see

STOP PRESS! Absolutely thrilled to learn that on the same day my post was published Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The UK's most prestigious award for science fiction. Richly deserved.


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