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The Survival of Science Fiction in Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven

Rachel Sherlock By Rachel Sherlock Published on April 27, 2017

Emily St. John Mandel is one of the speakers for the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival, where she will be speaking on “Dystopian Wastelands.” Her fourth novel Station Eleven won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven imagines a deadly virus named "Georgian Flu" that sweeps the world, decimating the global population, and reducing civilisation to a shadow of its former self. While the initial elements of this story are all-too-familiar from blockbuster movies, Station Eleven couldn’t be further from the overwrought horror and drama often associated with those films. Instead, Mandel presents a delicate story about the quiet human experiences of life before and after the deadly outbreak. The story opens in Toronto, with an actor, Arthur Leander, on stage performing King Lear as he suddenly collapses halfway through a scene. A young trainee paramedic, Jeevan, leaps onto the stage and tries futilely to save Arthur, while a child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, looks on aghast. This moment, which happens just as the Georgian Flu epidemic hits North America, provides the nexus point of the story, that clearly divides the world before and after it. The three characters provide the entry points into Mandel’s world. Throughout the book the narrative switches between different perspectives and time periods, with all three characters having a presence in both the pre-flu and post-flu narratives. We delve into Arthur’s rise to fame and his fraught relationships, particularly with his first wife Miranda, we follow Jeevan’s various career choices that led to his presence in the audience that fateful night, as well as his view of the unfolding crisis and world collapse, and we see Kirsten, having grown up in this new desolate world, still performing Shakespeare in a troupe known as the Travelling Symphony.

Mandel’s story is gripping in its understated description of the collapse of civilisation and the near annihilation of humanity. There is a horror which doesn’t come from gore or shock, but from the subdued and mundane tone that feels dismayingly real. The acclaim for the novel is well deserved, Mandel masterfully holds all the threads of the story in suspension, picking one strand up and laying one down, without the book feeling convoluted or giving the reader the sense that they’re being dragged away from “the real story.” This is particularly impressive when you consider the difference in setting that often exists between the strands, yet the parts set in the world as we currently know it are just as captivating as those set in the dystopian future. That the novel sits between genres in this way however, has raised some interesting tensions within the text and also within its audiences.

For the most part Station Eleven has been classed, due to its dystopian setting, as science fiction, and it notably won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction book of the year. However, this classification is not without contention, there are those who argue that dystopian fiction merely falls under speculative fiction and does not necessarily imply science fiction. However, speculative fiction is a term is so loose that it frequently fails to be useful as a definition, whereas dystopian fiction typically interacts with many traits of science fiction, such as a future-facing lens, and an interest in the impact of technology, environment or biological changes on society. The inclusion of dystopian fiction in the science fiction genre is a more straightforward matter when using the term soft science fiction, as this allows for a space that proposes technological and societal realities without needed to explain them in great detail. The issue really at stake here, is the perceived tension coming from Station Eleven’s other genre description, that of literary fiction. Station Eleven’s reviews, while glowing with praise, are often at lengths to reassure readers that this book is not merely science fiction, this is important, this is literary. Indeed, the author herself has sought to distance herself from the science fiction genre stating “I was surprised to discover that if you write literary fiction that’s set partly in the future, you’re apparently a sci-fi writer.” She went on to say that her anxieties around the labelling stemmed from a fear that it would prevent readers of literary fiction from picking up the book, but also fail to appeal to readers of science fiction because it doesn’t interface with the genre expectations enough. This tension between genre fiction and literary fiction is well established, and Station Eleven is hardly an anomaly, but what makes this instance of particular interest is the way the book itself engages with this issue.

In her story, Mandel explores the place of art in society, and the way that art is intrinsic to life and survival. This theme is most on display in the descriptions of the Travelling Symphony. Here we have a group of people who endure hardship and danger in their endless pursuit of bringing Shakespeare plays and Beethoven symphonies to the most desolate towns and communities. Their impetus for this almost Sisyphean task is represented in the motto painted on one of their tents: ‘Survival is insufficient.’ This sentiment is true not only for the post-flu dystopia, but for the pre-flu modern life, as exemplified by the character of Miranda, Arthur’s first wife. Throughout her unsettled narrative, her only constant source of solace and joy is in creating and drawing her comic book Station Eleven (it is from this comic that the book’s title comes). Even Arthur himself showcases the importance of art, in this case acting. His unfinished performance as King Lear, provides the moment of the breaking of the known world.

The importance of art isn’t unqualified however, and the novel raises the question of whether all art is of equal merit, and whether some art has more worth in preserving than others. The Travelling Symphony exclusively performs Shakespeare plays because “People want what was best about the world.” Yet this dedication to works of well-established worth has a tension with Symphony’s own motto. Neither Mandel nor her characters ever try to hide that their inspirational quote ‘Survival is insufficient’ has an incongruously mundane origin. As one of the characters bemoans, “that quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” There’s a sense of contrast in their dedication to performing the very best of literature and their continued inspiration from a quote from a science fiction TV show. 

Mandel it seems wrestles with merits of various forms of art both within her work and within her marketing, and yet she offers us a glimpse of hope on both counts. Artistic form and genre are transcended both in the world of Station Eleven and in the novel’s across-the-board success. While there continues to be a struggle to legitimise some genres, the contentiousness as well as the success of Station Eleven might prompt further reconciliation. It’s a gentle reminder that survival might not be sufficient, but science fiction might be.

Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.

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