Just after the death of famous actor Arthur Leander the Georgia Flu rushes around the globe, killing 99% of the population. The news of his death spreads to his ex-wives and oldest friend Clark as the Flu spreads. After holing up with supplies in his brother’s apartment Jeevan heads out into the world, witnessing the unravelling of the world he has always lived in. Years later, Kirsten who saw Leander die travels with the Travelling Symphony putting on Shakespeare plays and concerts in the settlements that have started, carrying with her a comic book he gave to her. And in this new world a mysterious and ruthless prophet has appeared…
This book was intriguing and thought-provoking and gripping, a great combination. I like to think of books like this as what if? books, where we are invited into a world not totally different to ours but with one drastic diversion. It gets you thinking, wondering and questioning the current world as well as taking an interesting journey into the alternate one. Emily Mandel performs this what if? admirably, interestingly and cleverly.
The stories of the different characters pre and post the Georgia Flu at first seem like an arbitrary collection; but links emerge between all of them throughout the book, allowing the reader to make the missing connections. The exciting varying plot lines and characters weaving together, the interest of the post-civilisation world of itself and the quick switches between viewpoints keep it exciting and gripping.
I’m not sure whether this was trying to make some kind of point or was just a plot device. Is it setting up human connections as more important than civilisation? Revealing that we are all interconnected? Or a neat way to tell a story from different angles? Probably all of the above.
I enjoyed that most of the post-Georgia flu action was set fifteen years later: that the world had managed to achieve some sort of stability rather than a catalogue of murder, rape and pillage: but still the extremes of humanity were evident. Most people who survived had to kill someone to do so, and societies, groups, museums, towns, extreme religious beliefs and cults have sprung up in various ways.
I find it a little hard to believe that the remainder of humanity would be quite so useless: surely among the 1% there would be someone who could make electricity work, or who would realise that though houses may not still have running water they’re still probably a better place to live than a converted Wimpy – but this is Emily Mandel’s what if, not mine, and perhaps indeed the progress would be as slow as she says. And it did feel thought through: the book was an ongoing journey of gosh, what would I do without screens/the internet/running water/supermarkets?
It was clever that the lives we follow before the flu are celebrities, who are perhaps the people who are most reliant on our civilised modern state. Now the internet is gone, newspapers, texts, telephones – and celebrity is a distant memory. News is by word of mouth or by encounter – the mysterious Prophet is infamous, as is the Museum of Civilisation set up in an old airport – but knowledge is scant and unreliable. But of course, Shakespeare survives.
This is a fascinating, pacy and gripping book and I heartily recommend it. Get reading!
Which books are your favourite What If? books? I also like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rule Britannia, where America invades England to turn it into a theme park…