Station Eleven, Part One: “Because Survival is Insufficient”

Sooooo, a bit of a lag there between posts. Apologies, especially to my students—the term is getting really busy between grading and the fact that the vast majority of administrative stuff we want to get done in terms of new courses and calendar changes has to happen before the middle of this week … so I’ve been a bit distracted.

Which means that I’m putting up my first Station Eleven post after we’ve already started the novel in class. Also, I’m not done talking about Zone One—I’ve been pecking away at a final post comparing Whitehead’s novel to Max Brooks’ World War Z, and the instructive contrasts between them. I was going to get that up soon after this one, but I think it will probably be a better idea to get my second Station Eleven post up first. As Liz Lemon would say: blerg.

But without further ado …

Revenge of the Genres

StationElevenWhy Station Eleven?

Neil Gaiman is a genre writer with literary acclaim, and Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist who wrote a genre novel, and both work nicely as examples of how we might trouble our preconceptions of the categories of both literature and genre (and “literature” as a genre). Station Eleven does something different, however—for that matter, it does a bunch of things differently. The novel is vaguely generic, insofar as it follows in the mold of Stephen King’s The Stand, in which the vast majority of human beings are killed off by a particularly virulent strain of influenza. Mercifully, the dead in this case stay dead. But the apocalypse itself, while obviously functioning as a crucial narrative fulcrum, ultimately proves to be a MacGuffin: while in many such narratives the site and source of the mass deaths is crucial to the story and allegorizes some fear or anxiety (natural disaster, alien invasion, weaponized biological agent, zombies), the “Georgian Flu” of Station Eleven is an ancillary detail. It could just as well have been any other means of mass extinction for all the attention it gets paid. Those of us who obsess over nerdy detail will be frustrated: was it a natural mutation of the flu, or was it weaponized? Are the survivors immune, or did they just manage to stay clear of infection? If it’s the latter, isn’t there the danger of the virus returning to finish the job?

Mandel is not concerned with such details: the central theme of the novel is not the mass extinction of most of humanity, but rather the ways in which people adapt and change, and what remains important in the aftermath. Much of the post-flu story follows a traveling band of actors and musicians called The Traveling Symphony, who trek from settlement to settlement and perform music and plays. Their main dramatic stock in trade is Shakespeare: “They’d performed more modern plays in the first few years,” we’re told, “but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.” One of the members of the troupe explains this preference, suggesting that “people want what was best about the world,” a theme that Mandel develops in more complex ways over the course of the novel.

I must reluctantly admit that this line makes me think of that terrible Christian Bale / Matthew McConaughey movie Reign of Fire, a post-apocalyptic story in which the purveyors of the apocalypse are dragons accidentally released from internment underground. And no, Station Eleven doesn’t make me think of that premise, but a moment early in the film when Christian Bale’s character stages a crude theatrical version of Star Wars for the benefit of the children in the fortified enclave he presides over. His audience is enthralled. Though everything else about the film is more or less execrable, and this particular scene is played for laughs, it did make me wonder: what stories will persist in the event of a cataclysm few people survive? What elements of pre-apocalyptic culture will cling to humanity as a basis for future stories, legends, and mythologies?

The idea that Star Wars might be repeated in non-cinematic form is not exactly beyond the pale, considering its own self-conscious basis in myth and romance (George Lucas, besides stealing much of the plot from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai film The Hidden Fortress, also wrote his screenplay with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces at his elbow); it’s not unlikely that stories that don’t speak to specific historical moments would be more appealing than those requiring knowledge of historical or cultural contexts. Shakespeare’s plays have endured not just because of their poetry, but because they have proved endlessly adaptable, as anyone who has seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in 19th-century Italy, or a Richard III set in post-WWI England.

I have to say, as a lover of Shakespeare and someone who has directed a couple of his plays and acted in a few more, Mandel’s vision is comforting. The idea that people would revert (if that is the right verb) to the classics comprises a generous perspective on humanity, and a seductive one at that: who among us who feels guilty whenever we binge on Netflix rather than picking up a new novel, or when that novel we pick up isn’t something “literary,” hasn’t blamed (at least in part) the busyness of life and its myriad distractions? Sure, we’d get around to reading Ulysses or War and Peace, or reacquainting ourselves with Shakespeare, but who has the mental energy at the end of the day? By the same token, do we not blame social media and the internet for the fact that our younger generations lack the literacy and attention span for such great works?

(Not for nothing, but right now I’m lamenting the fact that I didn’t get my third zombie post written in time, as it deals in part with such tedium and mundanities of daily life).

As extrapolative SF, Station Eleven’s suggestion that we would find solace in Shakespeare is, at the least, a wee bit problematic—there is an element there of wishful thinking, but that might also be because we’re more accustomed to more cynical post-apocalyptic stories in which music and literature are the least of the survivors’ concerns, except as rare wistful moments of nostalgia when someone sings a sad song around the campfire moments before the zombies attack. But Station Eleven makes “culture” in this capacity its primary concern: the lead vehicle in the Traveling Symphony’s caravan (made up of pickup trucks “pulled by teams of horses on wheels of steel and wood”) bears the defiant motto “Because survival is insufficient”—a utopian declaration that being human means more than just getting by, it requires spiritual and intellectual nourishment as well. This, as we learn, underlies the Traveling Symphony’s mandate.

To return to the question of “why Station Eleven?”: if your nerd alarm is clanging, that’s likely because the assertion that “survival is insufficient” is a direct allusion to Star Trek: Voyager, a fact the novel acknowledges unabashedly. The line is spoken by former Borg Seven of Nine, expressing her realization that, as she re-learns how to be human, her need for an imaginative life is as necessary as the basic necessities of life.

There are a few points worth teasing out here, not the least of which is the way in which Mandel performs a cute little bit of prestidigitation, holding up Shakespeare as a cipher for enduring culture while sneaking in Star Trek and comic books. The novel’s title refers to a pair of comic books in the possession of one of the characters, from a series called Dr. Eleven:

Dr. Eleven is a physicist. He lives on a space station, but it’s a highly advanced space station that was designed to resemble a small planet. There are deep blue seas and rocky islands linked by bridges, orange and crimson skies with two moons on the horizon … Kirsten’s taken care of the comics as best she can but they’re dog-eared now, worn soft at the edges. The first issue falls open to a two-page spread. Dr. Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight. Small boats move between islands, wind turbines spinning on the horizon. He holds his fedora in his hand. A small white animal stands by his side. (Several of the older Symphony members have confirmed that this animal is a dog, but it isn’t like any dog Kirsten’s ever seen. Its name is Luli. It looks like a cross between a fox and a cloud.) A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.

One of the great pleasures of Station Eleven is the way Mandel deftly weaves the stories of a disparate but substantial ensemble of characters together, moving forward and backward in time as we go such that we gradually see how each of the characters are narratively connected. The Dr. Eleven comics function both as a thematic bit of connective tissue, but also as a concrete object anchoring the post-apocalyptic lives of the survivors (Kirsten especially) in memories of the perished world.

The comics also function metafictionally: Dr. Eleven’s story is one of flight and exile from an earth conquered and enslaved by hostile aliens, dystopic SF functioning as a central motif in a novel about a post-apocalyptic world, a novel that itself resists easy generic classification. Though Station Eleven received the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Emily St. John Mandel demurs from the label of science fiction, in part because she does not want to disappoint people who pick it up expecting doctrinaire SF and finding that, aside from the near-extinction of humanity, there is a dearth of anything else resembling SF tropes.

Mandel’s previous three novels were also written, in her words, as “literary fiction,” but as she says, “I was surprised to discover that if you write literary fiction with a crime in it, it turns out you’ve written a crime novel.” Perhaps ironically, part of the reason she shifted gears with Station Eleven was because she did not want to get pigeonholed as a writer of crime thrillers.

I don’t doubt that Mandel is sincere when she professes bemusement over people’s characterization of Station Eleven as SF; dystopias and visions of apocalypse have increasingly become a staple amongst such “literary” novelists as Cormac McCarthy (The Road), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go), and Margaret Atwood (pretty much everything she’s written in the past decade or so), and even when an author like Atwood enthusiastically embraces the science-fiction classification, booksellers seem reluctant to shelve their novels alongside Isaac Asimov—and indeed, you won’t find Station Eleven there either. But for our purposes, Station Eleven is an instructive text less for the question of how it is classified than for its juxtaposition of “high” culture and “low” in its thought experiment on what art will sustain us.

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Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching

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