Book: Doesn’t Seem Like Sci-Fi to Me

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, 2014.

According to the Wikipedia page, there are critics who called Station Eleven science fiction. St. John Mandel denies this, apparently. She’s right. In fact I was kind of hoping it would be more like scifi. I was disappointed to find that it’s pretty much realism through and through.

Doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I did. It has all the things a good book basically has. The characters are compelling and it flows together nicely. The premise is more or less typical post-apocalyptic, but it blends that setting well with scenes of flashback. It isn’t pointlessly gory, as some post-apocalyptic settings can be.

As far as theme, though, I would note that Station Eleven is conspicuously shallow on politics. This isn’t a criticism of the book, actually, because it’s merely a note about the book’s emphasis. Politics is very clearly not its subject matter, which is all right. That said, there were moments where I did feel a little skeptical. The people who create their large community at the Severn City Airport, where Clark keeps his Museum of Civilization, amazingly never engage in any kind of disputes about what kind of community they ought to maintain. This is a large group, of over a hundred people, and it grows. There is a mention of a rape, for which the punishment is exile (effectively death), but other than that, there are no references to laws, no references to power structures, governments, disputes and conflicts.

In the world of Station Eleven, people return to a kind of Rousseauean state of nature, where people more or less get along and there are no political problems. I admit to favoring Rousseau in any analysis of human nature. I do not, for example, believe that violence is inherent to the human spirit. I believe it is inherent to political organization and am skeptical of political organization’s ability to ever excise it, but I believe, in any case, that human beings are not naturally violent. Civilization is violent; civilization is fractious.

Which to me brings the impossibility of the world of Station Eleven to the fore. Despite the collapse of civilization, the characters we encounter try very quickly to exist in a civilized state. They live in towns and communities. They have “mayors” (there is a single reference to one). Indeed, the book ends with a vision of a town lit up by electricity, an astounding (and hopeful) fact.

And yet in good liberal fashion, the only villains are a group of religious fanatics, who are presumably evil because they are irrational. The rest of the people are more or less good. In this bourgeois fantasy, the only reason people fight each other is because one of them is deranged. More or less sensible people are good, and returning to civilization is obviously desirable.

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