Award winner ‘Station Eleven’ is a haunting, addictive novel

I read “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, in just a couple of days. It’s one of those books you can’t put down. I have a thing for post-apocalyptic tales, and I love novels like this one, in which the narrative takes the reader back and forth through time. This one connects the events from the pre-collapse past with those in the desolate place the world has become 20 years after the “Georgia Flu” pandemic wipes out most of the planet’s population.

I hear you saying “Another disease-wipes-out-most-of-humanity story?” You think you have heard this story before, but you haven’t.

A traveling symphony/Shakespearean troupe caravans through what is left of the Midwest – tiny communities that have formed in the wake of the pandemic. (Replace bands of marauding Indians with religious cults, and covered wagons with old pickup trucks, and it’s almost the Wild West.)

The lead caravan has written on it the words “Survival is insufficient” (taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager). And indeed, survival is not enough, which is why the troupe brings music and Shakespeare to the survivors of the apocalypse.

The Star Trek quote is also tattooed on one of the actor’s arms. Kirsten, who was a child when the flu hit, is mocked for having among her few belongings a glass paperweight. But she treasures it for its beauty. Also among her prized possessions are two issues of a rare graphic novel called “Station Eleven,” about a scientist living aboard a space station.

The story of Station Eleven parallels the main narrative, reminiscent of Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic within the comic book “Watchmen.” It’s interesting to see the comic book tale unfold, and how it relates to the plot.

Kirsten is my favorite character, sort of a tough, Katniss-like heroine, but Kirsten is only one of five  main characters. My one complaint is that I wish the book were longer, so that there would be more time to get to know the interesting characters whose stories are woven together in this carefully crafted, plot-driven story.

Mandel is a gifted writer. This is one of those books that I love but also hate because I will never be able to write something as beautiful as this haunting story about what it means to be part of the human race: “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie … it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.”

It’s true we don’t realize how much we take for granted until it’s gone – things like running water, electricity, antibiotics, but also family, familiarity, the simple pleasures of art, music, and good food.

“What would you miss?” the inside cover of the paperback asks. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was reading this novel late into the night, grateful for my sleeping family, for the electricity that made it possible for me to read in the darkness, and for every little thing that is part of our daily lives that we often don’t give a second thought.

“Station Eleven” was a finalist for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015. A film adaptation is being developed.

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“Station Eleven”
By Emily St. John Mandel
Trade paper
Vintage, June 2015

Postapocalyptica! What to watch while waiting for ‘Hunger Games’ finale

I loved “Hunger Games” – the books and the movies – and even though I feel cheated that they split the last book into two movies, I’m excited for the final chapter, “Mockingjay, Part 2,” coming out Nov. 20.

Maybe it’s morbid, but I love post-apocalyptic movies, and movies with dystopian societies. Here are some of my faves (in no particular order):

  1. Twelve Monkeys. Terry Gilliam’s trippy movie, about a prisoner sent back in time to collect information on the virus that all but destroyed humanity, also made my list of top 10 time travel movies. While the underground world where the survivors live is dark and creepy, the real horror is the mindfuckery James Cole (Bruce Willis) endures. Also, cool plot twists.
  2. Strange Days. It’s hard to believe “Strange Days” just had its 20th anniversary. The dystopian thriller set in 1999 was released in October 1995, when virtual reality was all the rage in sci fi. Written by James Cameron and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film is somewhat of a murder mystery, with the evidence in the form of discs recorded on “SQUIDS,” which plug into users’ heads and allow them to record memories and feelings. Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, and Tom Sizemore star.
  3. Hunger Games. A friend of mine recommended the books to me before the first movie came out so I read them all, one after another. (One benefit of being late to the party is you don’t have to wait for the next book to come out.) I like that the films stay true to the books, but I have an issue with paying full price for half a movie, which is what “Mockingjay, Part 1” was. I hope the finale is more satisfying.
  4. Never Let Me Go. The book and the movie make me cry like a baby. Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley star in the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartbreaking novel in which clones are raised to have their organs harvested.
  5. The Matrix. Did I mention virtual reality was big in the ’90s? I loved the first Matrix movie – Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in their cool trench coats and sunglasses, battling the powers that enslave humanity. So cool. But I found the sequels annoying and confusing.
  6. Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s futuristic film noir starring Harrison Ford is arguably the coolest film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story (there have been about a dozen movies made from his novels and short stories, including “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” and “The Adjustment Bureau”). Ford is retired police officer Rick Deckard, whose job was to track down replicants (bio-engineered androids) and destroy them. The film also stars Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, and Edward James Olmos.
  7. Children of Men. Based on P.D. James’ novel of the same name, “Children of Men” is set in the year 2027, and the U.K. is the only country with a functioning government. Twenty years of global infertility threatens the human race with extinction. Clive Owen plays Theo, a civil servant tasked with safeguarding the life of a pregnant young immigrant named Kee. The movie was written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and also stars Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Charlie Hunnam.
  8. Elysium. Matt Damon stars in Neill Blomkamp’s futuristic morality play, in which Damon’s character attempts to reach a Med-Bay on the luxury space habitat Elysium after being poisoned by radiation on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Even if Blomkamp is a bit heavy-handed with his symbolism, I love his movies. “District 9” kept me on the edge of my seat, “Chappie” was so much better than the critics gave it credit for, and this one is an entertaining ride as well.
  9. I Am Legend. I’m not a huge fan of zombie flicks, but I like that this one focuses on character, rather than just frenzied zombie carnage. Will Smith’s performance was moving. Plus it has a cute German shepherd in it. And “Three Little Birds.”
  10. Gattaca. Sometimes subtle is better with science fiction. Gattaca is one of those, like “Never Let Me Go,” that lacks the guns-blazing craziness of movies like “Mad Max,” but still manages to shake you up. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) dreams of traveling to outer space, but in the future, only genetically superior people are allowed to do such things. Jude Law and Uma Thurman also star.

(photo: Elysium; TriStar Pictures)