September 13th, 2015

Station Eleven Is a Very Good Read — Even for ID Doctors

huevo cuba 2012One of my colleagues, an MD/PhD, stopped me after our clinical conference a few weeks ago. He does basic science research, doesn’t see patients anymore — but he still comes to our clinical conference. Definitely scores points for that. And for being a very smart, interesting, and nice fellow.

This was our conversation, reproduced verbatim:

HIM:  Hey Pablo — got a book for you.

He’s called me “Pablo” ever since we went to Cuba for a scientific meeting four years ago. Yes, Cuba. Here are some pictures. And that’s one of Havana’s “taxi huevos” pictured above.

ME:  Díme, Mateo.

For the record, neither one of us speaks Spanish very well. I’m pretty sure that means “Tell me, Matt”.

HIM: “Station Eleven.” It takes place in a dystopian future. Highly, highly recommended.

ME:  I’m not really into science fiction. But my son is, I’ll let him know.

I’m imagining some Mad Max or Blade Runner-like thing, only a book. I can handle this post-apocalyptic theme in films (though for the record thought both of those movies were only so-so). But a whole novel? Skeptical.

HIM:  It’s not really science fiction. Pretty much everyone is wiped out by the flu. It’s from the perspective of the survivors.

ME:  I also don’t like books about ID topics written by non-ID doctors for non-medical readers. They get so many details wrong, it’s distracting.

Am I the only one with this view? I must have a dozen books given to me as gifts on ID topics, and most of them are terrible. One of the few I really enjoyed was My Own Country, by Abraham Verghese — and he’s an ID doctor.

HIM: No medical details, don’t worry. Weaves themes of love, art, music, journalism, religion — just what it means to be human. Really, really liked it. Tengo que leer!

I told you we don’t speak Spanish very well.

ME: OK, maybe I’ll give it a go.

Now at this point I’ll confess that the emphasis in that last sentence really should have been on the word maybe, because it just didn’t sound like the kind of book I’d enjoy.

Plus the world is filled with endless books waiting to be read, and there’s only so much time — especially with 1) Elvis Costello’s upcoming autobiography, which will be nearly 700 pages long;  2) wonderful baseball analysis like this available pretty much continuously; and 3) the imminent arrival of the next great flu pandemic, which promises to limit the free time we have available for reading quite substantially, especially if we are unlucky enough to perish in it.

But I was killing time in our neighborhood book store (how long before those are all gone, even without flu wiping us off the globe?), and the book was featured prominently in the displays. So I started reading it.

And you know what? Matt was right — it’s terrific. The author develops several interesting characters, shifts the story effortlessly between the pre-, immediately post-, and many decades post-flu periods, and strikes just the right tone when describing how humans live in a world without running water, cell phones, internet, electricity, cars, jets, or countries.

They do more than just survive — that’s what makes the book interesting, plausible, and, despite the grim plot, at times quite uplifting.

And, for the record, it has no embarrassingly incorrect medical information, though one might wonder at times how influenza could have a nearly 100% case fatality rate.

Small matter — it’s fiction, after all.


5 Responses to “Station Eleven Is a Very Good Read — Even for ID Doctors”

  1. a. zuger says:

    hey pablo: all due respect to your literary acumen, but the single best depiction of the flu in fiction is Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book. It is just extraordinary. (in case you need another 700 pages to occupy your spare time).
    cheers, az

    • Paul Sax says:

      Hola AZ,
      Thanks for the suggestion! Even good for a non-science fiction fan? If so, I’ll add it to the pile.

  2. Loretta S says:

    Thanks for getting my day off to that cheery start with Bill Gates, Paul. But I think he is right-on about what possibility is *really* scary. Especially because I am not sure we have put many of the lessons of the latest Ebola outbreak into action. And thanks for the laugh about Elvis Costello. Big fan of his, but not sure what he would have to say in 700 pages. Perhaps he has to refute the one-time description of him (on Fresh Air) as “the angry young man with a fresh face”. 🙂

  3. I heard a rumor through the grapevine that you used to be a humor writer for Nickelodeon. True?

    • Paul Sax says:

      Hi Phil,
      1) Wrote for the Harvard Lampoon in college, which was very much responsible for a B-minus in Physics my Junior year.
      2) In a shocking coincidence, Tom O’Brien, Associate Director of the Microbiology lab at the Brigham, had an eventually very famous son on the Lampoon around the same time. Some guy named Conan.
      3) Sold some jokes to Nickelodeon when in medical school. Am now fabulously wealthy off the royalties.

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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