Literary Science Fiction
It seemed as though I was seeing Emily St. John Mandel’s name everywhere I looked, so I finally managed to get not her most recent novel, but the one before it (I think), Station Eleven from the library.
I should say that years ago I was married to a person who loved reading science fiction. I gave the genre a try, but it didn’t appeal to me. Subsequently, I read some Ursula Le Guin, who was more to my liking, but she did not inspire me to seek out more of the genre, nor did I care for Doris Lessing’s forays in that direction.
I didn’t even know what Station Eleven was about. I had just seen frequent mentions of Mandel and some reference to science fiction connected to her. I was dubious. And then I saw a man across the aisle from me on a plane reading Station Eleven, which is kind of like something that might happen in the novel. It seemed like a sign, and so when I got home, I plucked it from my pile of library books and sank into it.
It didn’t start out like science fiction. There’s a production of King Lear in Toronto, and the lead has a stroke or a heart attack and dies. A number of people are obviously affected by this event–a man in the front row who has just finished EMT training; a child actor (Mandel cleverly spins a plausible case for why there would be a child actor in a production of King Lear); the dead actor’s lawyer who needs to track down various ex-wives.
But then, there’s a plague. I was stunned by this development, and checked the copyright page. The book was published in 2014, and yet the events that transpire are eerily reminiscent of the early months of 2020, but they take place at a much faster rate. And then we jump ahead fifteen or twenty years and find ourselves traveling, by foot or horse-drawn conveyance, through the upper Midwest of the United States, along with a troupe of musicians and performers.
I won’t say more except to state that Mandel’s prose is absorbing and satisfying. We jump back and forth in time, but we always know where we are, and in the course of the novel, the threads of connection among characters past and present are slowly and satisfyingly revealed. Had I known before I started that I would be reading a novel about a pandemic, I might not have picked this book up. But I found the experience of reading this novel deeply satisfying.