By Martin Vogel
Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, depicts the collapse of modern civilisation when a flu pandemic sweeps across the world and (twenty years later) the dystopian society that is established by small clusters of survivors. I read it on the recommendation of the Financial Times’ business books podcast – although I refrained from listening to the episode until I’d completed the book. I enjoy it when novels appear on lists of business books, something that happens too infrequently. In truth, insofar as fiction provides insight into the human condition, almost any novel is more rewarding of a leader’s time than a business book, most of which are mediocre. But I can see why Station Eleven caught the FT’s attention.
The novel portrays how utterly dependent we are on organisations and the technology we manage, and how fragile is the fabric they weave. The virus that initiates the story originates in the Republic of Georgia but spreads rapidly in two respects: those infected develop symptoms within hours and are dead within two days; and, in an interconnected world, it is transmitted around the globe before most people are even aware that this disease in a distant land threatens their country. In Toronto, where the novel is initially set, chaos breaks out in the first 24 hours as hospitals are overwhelmed, parents fail to return home to their children and the mobile phone networks become congested. Within a few days, the familiar presenters on the television news networks disappear, to be replaced by whoever is still able to staff the office. Within a fortnight, the networks are off air. In short order, the electricity grid collapses as the staff needed to operate it die off; with it goes the internet, eliminating at a stroke the world’s knowledge. Motor transport becomes impossible and, before long, the surviving population settles in whatever locations they had reached when the plague took hold (for one group, a provincial airport to which their plane had been diverted) or to which they can travel on foot.