There’s a lot of talk these days about people reading dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The Oxford English Dictionary defines dystopia as “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.” Perhaps in our hope that this won’t become our present reality and will stay imaginary, we delve into these authors’ visions of such worlds and perhaps hear again their implicit warnings.
So here is a dystopian novel: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage, 2015). This is a really good read, although it is certainly not very cheerful. She describes the world after it has collapsed following an outbreak of Georgia Flu. The flu is so bad that people die from it in minutes, and soon there are only a handful of survivors in North America. All the infrastructure has failed without people there to sustain it. It is a frighteninng picture and an all too possible reality.
Mandel layers three main stories that go back and forth between past and present. She is a really good writer and you’re able to see how people envision both those times. Here is a passage about Kirsten, the main female protagonist who carries old magazines with her, trying to remember what the world was like: …sometimes when she looked at her collection of pictures she tried to imagine and place herself in that other, shadow life. You walk in a toom and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. When you’re in danger, you call for the police. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver and press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone. All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze. There is money, slips of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth. There are dentists. She tried to imagine this life playing our somewhere at the present moment. Some parallel Kirsten in an air-conditioned room, waking from an unsettling dream of walking through an empty landscape. (pp. 201-202)
This has an interesting Pacific Northwest piece as the author grew up on Denman Island, which is in the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island (Comox) and Powell River on the mainland. She uses this location as the hometown of Arthur Leander, the actor playing King Lear whom we meet at the beginning of the book. (Shakespeare is a shadow author in this book.) The fictional name is Delano Island. But her descriptions of its geography are familiar and somehow comforting in the bleak landscape of this dystopia.