Among my many charming quirks is a general dislike of “back-swing” novels. That’s Andrew Wheeler’s term for novels where the author kills off billions of humans to make room for the protagonist’s sword’s back-swing: your Dies the Fireses, your Directive 51s, and so on. I am also not keen on most modern dystopias; I find most of them shallow and trite, with hilari-bad world-building. Station Eleven looked exactly like the sort of book I would hate.
Sometimes my expectations are totally wrong.
Arthur Leander, an actor who has left a string of broken marriages in his wake, livens up an otherwise unremarkable production of Lear by dropping dead on stage. This bold improvisation, which under almost any other circumstances would have almost certainly ensured his lasting fame, is undermined by poor timing, The night Leander died on that Toronto stage was the night the Georgia Flu began to spread across Toronto and the other cities of the world.
By the time the authorities begin to grasp that Georgia Flu is almost universally contagious and almost universally fatal, planeloads of unwitting Patient Zeroes flying out of Moscow have already made it far too late to contain the crisis. It’s all over bar the screaming and the crying and the dying in vast heaps.
But a few survive. Not many, perhaps one in a hundred or one in a thousand — statisticians being no more immune to the flu than anyone else, hard numbers are hard to come by  — but while the post-flu Earth is an emptier world, it’s not empty. People being people, the survivors congregate. The rich, technological world of the early 21st century may only be a memory and the stuff of decaying ruins, but life and community go on.
Twenty years after the Collapse, the members of the Travelling Symphony — many, like Kirsten Raymonde, old enough to have survived the Collapse, others too young to remember the lost world — make their living performing Shakespeare’s plays in the small towns near Lakes Huron and Michigan. This involves a certain level of risk, but for the most part the post-Collapse world is relatively safe. It isn’t inhabited by bloodthirsty Ren Faire cosplayers; it isn’t Top Gear Goes Dingo. Living as a travelling player is safe enough.
The Travelling Symphony arrives in St. Deborah by the Water, where they hope to reconnect with a former player who remained behind to have a baby. Their friend is nowhere to be seen. When the players ask about her, it becomes very clear something ominous is at work in St. Deborah. A world touched by calamity is one vulnerable to the blandishments of extremist religion. A prophet, it seems, has made St. Deborah his own, a prophet who sees the Collapse as “an initial culling of the impure.”
A prophet who takes it very badly indeed when a girl he designated as one of his wives escapes by stowing away in one of the Travelling Symphony’s caravans.
As usual, negative stuff first:
To know Arthur is to want to push him down a long flight of stairs, and we spend a fair amount of time with him.
I grant that reducing the human population to millions of people is going to present something of a challenge regarding that whole keeping-high-technology-going thing but the people in this novel not only lose gasoline as soon as it goes stale in the tanks, they never seem to try to maintain the hydroelectric power systems (although here and there we do see people trying to revive old technologies like electricity and newspapers). Also, I would expect a world lit only by flame to be more agricultural than this particular instance seems to be. It’s a puzzler.
Interestingly, the book does comment on all the times that people thought this crisis or that crisis would end the world but didn’t. Georgia flu seems to be unique, in that it delivers the apocalypse where so many other crises failed. One wonders if it was an engineered virus.
A lot more of the book involves the world before the Collapse than is common in post-apocalyptic books, Usually the Big Whoops draws a line through the entry for the Old Days and the characters might as well have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain. That is not the case here; many of the characters are old enough to have lived in the years before the Collapse. What and who they lost still haunts them.
One of the elements that keep this from being just another story about post-apocalyptic cult leaders and the tweens they covet is the plot structure. Mandel eschews linearity. She skips back and forth in time in a way that at first seems almost patternless. Although it is not immediately clear, Mandel has a very solid idea where she is headed with her rambles up and down the timelines. Arthur Leander doesn’t live to see the Collapse and his ex-wife Miranda is one of its legions of casualties, but their deeds continue to affect the work long, long after their deaths.
Even when the prophet’s people begin actively stalking the Travelling Symphony, Mandel manages to maintain a high level of tension without resorting to thriller-style drama. There’s always the looming possibility of a terrible death, but the moments of lethal violence are brief. Mandel gets far more mileage from letting the audience imagine what could be happening off-stage, or what might happen in the next chapter, than most authors can achieve with unending gore-fests.
This wasn’t what I expected and I don’t have any problem recommending it. I see from the author’s bio that she has three other novels as well as a number of short stories. I will be seeking them out.
1: You could try to work out what the survival rate was from how many survivors turn out to have met Arthur but that, I fear, is not a statistically valid approach.