Is Station Eleven science fiction? Does it matter?

September 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

Last year, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was published, a novel which follows a small cast of interconnected figures through various spatial and temporal settings, most notably the upper Midwest approximately twenty years after a pandemic has wiped out the bulk of the world’s human population. Largely due to the incredible vividness of that future Mandel presents, Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best Science Fiction novel, and genre fiction titan George R.R. Martin has praised the novel on his blog, even suggesting it should be named best novel at this year’s Hugo Awards. Given that scores of science fiction writers, both excitable young adults and grizzled veterans, likely wish they could somehow travel to an alternate universe wherein their work received such acclaim, one might imagine that these are the proudest moments of Mandel’s burgeoning science fiction career. But there’s a catch: some people (Mandel among them) aren’t quite sure if she has a science fiction career at all.Featured image

You see, even Mandel doesn’t quite think of the novel as science fiction; rather, she imagines Station Eleven as literary fiction, and the book’s status as a finalist for the National Book Award, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States, indicates that much of the literary community agrees with her assessment. For many, Station Eleven deserves the label of “Serious Literature.”

I can almost hear some of your groans from across the computer screen, science fiction fans. “Here it is,” you’re thinking, “another author writing science fiction but claiming it’s something else so the literati will indulge. Look at the apocalyptic wasteland; notice all the allusions to Star Trek; for God’s sake, the book shares its title with the pulpy comic books about heroic adventures on a planet-sized spaceship that one of Station Eleven’s own characters writes.” And, to a certain degree, you’re probably right; genres matter economically, and, had the novel been marketed as pure sci-fi, the book probably wouldn’t have enticed the Oprah’s-Book-Club-type readers that have allowed it to soar up the bestseller list, and it certainly would have been ignored by the major literary prizes.

Mandel probably knows the functional value of avoiding a genre fiction label as well as anyone; oddly enough, she has stated that the impetus for writing was partially to avoid the label of “crime fiction author” that she had begun to obtain from her first three novels. No need to take Mandel’s denial of the sci-fi genre title too harshly, then; you can commiserate with your crime fiction peers. Go ahead and call Mandel a traitor – I’m sure there will others to echo your complaints.

However, if you can temper your anger for a moment, I’ll try to explain to you why Mandel’s supposed denial of the genre might not be as simple as it seems right now. As much as a short list of the book’s events and allusions might lead one to believe Station Eleven is directly within the lineage of science fiction, when actually reading the book, the lineage does not seem quite so apparent. Sure, a third of the book takes place in a dystopian future, but two-thirds of it does not; the novel cares about how its characters try to live and construct meaning in the horrific future, but it also cares about how its characters do so in mid-1990s Toronto and early 21st century Los Angeles, each of which occupies a length of the novel comparable to the dystopian future. While some chapters detail dangerous cultists stalking our band of heroes, other chapters focus on the disintegration of a famous couple’s marriage or the death of a middle-aged actor on stage while performing as King Lear. Most of the book reads as a purely realist meditation on the trials and anxieties of celebrity culture, a classic example of literary fiction.

Even in the dystopian future, Shakespeare looms large. His plays keep appearing throughout every portion of the text, including the future; not even dear Captain Picard means as much to the novel as the Bard. For all of the novel’s interest in science fiction, the primary literary figure is not Asimov or Clarke – rather, it is the man who serves as the cornerstone for countless authors who know nothing of metaphysical sciences but can recite countless lines from metaphysical poets.

So, if one is to be fair, Station Eleven can be read just as convincingly as a work of literary fiction just as – if not more – convincingly than as a work of pure science fiction. However, is fighting over what the novel is truly productive? Both communities have recognized it with major awards; the book now belongs to both genres, each of which could stand to learn the value of sharing from the genre of children’s picture books. And perhaps, if we all can learn the importance of sharing, Station Eleven can serve as the rare book that proves real-world literary fiction and science fiction can coexist within one text, that most books aren’t as simple as their shelving designation.

In the harsh future of Station Eleven, a band of musicians and actors come together to form a traveling troupe, dedicating to performing the works of Shakespeare, in order to maintain some semblance of pre-collapse culture. This group, known as the Traveling Symphony, has a slogan, which they have written on their caravan: “Because survival is insufficient.” The source of this quotation, so vital to this group of Shakespeareans that they immediately advertise it to anyone who might see them? Star Trek. In Mandel’s future, the literary culture has, by necessity, been stripped of its silly biases and pointless designations. Star Trek and Shakespeare can exist within the same space, in tandem. Maybe our future can also feature such a productive coexistence of literary and science fiction, and maybe Station Eleven can serve as a guide. I hope so, as long as we don’t have to go through our own devastating pandemic in order to get there.

–Lucas Hilliard

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