Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"Station Eleven," by Emily St. John Mandel

Readers of this blog will know that I have always been completely uninterested in science fiction. OK, I have read a few of Ursula Le Guin’s stories, which are wonderful, and a little more fiction from the genre, including some of the famous utopian and dystopian novels, but overall very little. In fact, I will admit, while acknowledging its place in literature, and that some of it is written at a very literary level, I have been somewhat dismissive of it. (I know, I know…this was highly presumptuous of me.) Recently, during a conversation with my friend J., it came up that I had liked Emily St. John Mandel’s novel “Last Night in Montreal,” (see my post of 11/1/15) but had not read her perhaps more famous novel “Station Eleven” (Knopf, 2014) because it was labeled as science fiction. J. told me that in fact, despite its science fiction aspects, the book was much more than that, and was a compelling book about character, relationships, and choices. Because I trust her judgment, I thought, “Well, I should at least give it a try,” and obtained a copy of the book, thinking I would at least start it and see whether I wanted to continue reading it. Well, J. was right! I was immediately swept up in the novel, and never considered stopping reading it. It is set in the present and the near future, and starts at a Shakespeare performance in Toronto, during which we are introduced to some of the main characters. Soon after, a terrible virus becomes pandemic. The rest of the book tells of the lives of the survivors in a world without infrastructure, electricity, media, etc. The group of people most focused on in the novel forms a traveling combination symphony and theater group, and performs wherever they go. There are some flashbacks to pre-pandemic days, giving us more background about some of the characters. The reason I liked this novel, despite my anti-science fiction preferences, is that the focus is (as J. had told me) still on human behavior, characteristics, and relationships, in a stripped-down version of our modern world. By the way, I am very aware that this is the second recent post in which I have needed to eat some humble pie and acknowledge that I was wrong about my preconceptions about a book. It reminds me of the importance of pushing myself to stretch beyond my immediate responses to hearing about a new book that others are telling me is excellent. Sometimes that first response is right (for me, at least), but I need to give such books more consideration, and maybe at least leaf through them, or read their first couple of chapters, before deciding whether to continue reading them.
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