I read this week that Bill Gates believes a pandemic is coming in about 10 years. He said, “We’re due for an apocalyptic sickness on the scale of the 1918 flu, which killed some 50 million people.” A statement for sci-fi writers to enjoy and ponder and expand into a 400-page novel.
The science fiction book shelf at my house emptied when my three boys left home. There were a few lingering duplicate copies of the “Dune” series with tattered covers, but all the rest migrated. It was fine with me since I rarely read this genre and I needed more room for my Dick Francis collection anyway.
One of my book thief sons handed me a copy of the national bestseller “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel as I boarded the plane to Hawaii last month. It is a haunting post-apocalyptic novel – not a beach book (mindless entertainment). I couldn’t put it down because great writing always wins.
The story begins with the on-stage death of aging actor Arthur Leander as he performs in “King Lear.” The death is witnessed by a cast and audience who will join him in death in the next week as a flu pandemic quickly kills 99 percent of earth’s population.
A few chapters and 20 years later, we meet the small Traveling Symphony group whose members hope to keep some of the past culture alive as they journey between settlements and perform Shakespeare and classical music. The small troupe has painted their theme on the lead wagon, “Survival is Insufficient,” but many have never seen the “Star Trek” episode where the quote was taken.
Connections emerge as the reader goes back and forth in time. The child who stood in the wings at King Lear, Kirsten Raymonde, now performs in the same play as an adult woman. Others emerge from that past to take on new roles in the aftermath.
This novel causes the reader to mourn with the characters the loss of the simple and beautiful things enjoyed before the collapse of civilization. It also makes us wonder how we could go back to a time without the advances in technology we all take for granted.
No one can communicate by telephone, internet or mail. There are no cars or airplanes for travel. Isolated people wander across the landscape hoping to find family and loved ones who may have survived. What would we become without the ability to contact others?
The author has purposely chosen 20 years after the pandemic, which is much more interesting to me. Some of the post-apocalyptic books I have read are set in the terror-filled immediate aftermath or the depressing generations past. There is a sense of hope amidst the struggle to survive for those who have made it this far, and we are left with the feeling that mankind will rebuild a better earth.
As I handed “Station Eleven,” with a couple of salt water marks on the cover, back to my son, I couldn’t help smiling as I thought about all the books he had scuffed up over the years. My smile faded as I remembered Bill Gates pandemic prediction and the spooky coincidence of this sci-fi book. This is one tale I hope never comes true.