Back in college (which would be about 25 years ago, for reference) I worked at the local supermarket as the head cashier. I was just coming to discover my love of Shakespeare so I was anxious to talk about the subject with whomever might be interested (who am I kidding, I still do that ;)). One of the cashiers was a retired English teacher, so I asked her if she was a fan of Shakespeare. What she said to me has stuck with me all these years. She told me, “If human civilization were to be wiped out tomorrow, and only a single book remained to represent what once was, that book should be King Lear.”
Station 11 makes me wonder whether the author was checking out on aisle 4 when we had that conversation, because that’s pretty much the story. We open with a production of King Lear where the lead character drops dead of a heart attack on stage. (Why is it always Lear when that happens? I could swear I’ve got memory of at least three different Lear-dies-on-stage stories). Anyway, it also just so happens that this night is the outbreak of the “Georgia flu”, an epidemic that quickly decimates 99% of the world’s population.
Cut quickly to twenty years in the future, when all the gasoline is gone and cars have been turned into hollowed out metal chassis pulled by horses. A caravan of traveling players roams the countryside, going from village to village performing classical music and … you guessed it, Shakespeare. Why, in a world where people are trying to rediscover the basic skills needed to survive, are they still performing Shakespeare? Because the people want to remember the best of what it was to be human.
I love that. I think I’ve got the quote wrong, as I listened on audiobook and can’t easily find it again, but it captures the essence of what we’ve always talked about here. Shakespeare makes life better, and it does so by holding a mirror up to our own nature.
How’s the book? Not bad. It’s certainly not the first to do the “99% of the population is wiped out” story, notably thinking of Stephen King’s The Stand as a defining example of that genre. I was a little disappointed in the author’s belief that technology could be wiped out so quickly. After twenty years, nobody’s got the electricity up and running again? In the span of less than a life time they’ve forgotten about how computers used to work? I don’t buy it. I much prefer the stories where, when technology is forced to take a step backward, humanity gathers its forces to move it forward again.
But this isn’t a technology story and doesn’t claim to be (go read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano or the aforementioned The Stand if you want that). This story is about the eternal transformative nature of literature and how it can change the world. There’s a particular book that keeps coming up again and again, before the plague and after, and only once you’ve understood who touched the book and when does the story all fall into place.
As always with stories like this there’s not enough Shakespeare for me, but what can you do. I can tell you that I was looking for the sequel before I’d even finished the first one. Alas, there’s not a sequel.