I’m a big geek when it comes to dystopian fiction. One of my top three favorite books of all time is Stephen King’s THE STAND, which I read when I was a teenager (and re-read every couple of years), and it inspired a lifelong appetite for any book about the fall of Life As We Know It and attempts to rebuild in the aftermath. Why? Partly prurient voyeurism (how DO we almost all die?). Partly because I’m fascinated with survival, and dystopian fiction gives me the chance to put myself in the characters’ shoes like a virtual reality game and think, How would I do?
But also dystopian fiction can be, like science fiction, a commentary on how we live now. And often, in addition to warning us to quit doing the incredibly stupid sh*t we’re doing that could lead to the demise of life as we know it (ignoring climate change, creating plague WMDs) it’s a love letter to the way we live–in the way of you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN is one of the best dystopian novels I’ve ever read–right up there with THE STAND, Peter Heller’s THE DOG STARS, and Karen Thompson Walker’s THE AGE OF MIRACLES. It’s also just superb fiction.
It offers me all the dystopian angst I can handle: we’re watching the remains of society trying to survive after a pandemic that wipes out 99% of us. Unlike Stephen King’s THE STAND, there’re no forces of Ultimate Good & Evil battling for the survivors’ souls. This is “just” humanity, struggling to do the things it does best: forage. Form new communities. Dominate each other. Create art anyway. (Much of STATION ELEVEN follows a traveling theater group as they slog from town to town, with a horse-drawn caravan, instruments, and costumes scavenged from the houses of the dead, trying to bring Shakespeare and music to communities living in gas stations and fast food restaurants, because–as the troupe’s borrowed-from-Star-Trek motto says, “Survival is insufficient.”)
As with any genre novel, much of what’s here will seem familiar–which, I would argue, is part of the fun of reading genre: you basically know what kind of meal you’re going to get. We see, in kaleidoscopic bits and pieces, the unfolding crisis. We see the more quotidian terrors of aftermath: death from infection, dog bites, marauders. We imprint on a couple of characters and come to root strongly for their survival.
What’s different about STATION ELEVEN, what elevates it, in my ever-humble opinion, to truly fine fiction, to art–is the writing. The characters’ inner lives are so fully occupied and imagined that I instantly, intimately believed they were real and inhabited their skins. I felt such claustrophobia upon being stuck in the dystopian future that even in the here and now, grumbling to myself upon unloading groceries from my Jeep, I’d think: “In STATION ELEVEN world, there are no Jeeps. There are no groceries. There’s no electric light. AND THEY CAN’T GET BACK FROM THERE TO HERE.”
Yet some of my favorite passages were a love letter to the way we live today:
“[Jeevan] felt an absurd desire to run into the park. It had been rendered foreign by the storm, all snow and shadows, black silhouettes of trees, the underwater shine of a glass greenhouse dome…. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He stopped to read a text message from Laura: I had a headache so I went home. Can you pick up milk? …And here, all momentum left him. He could go no further.”
“Miranda set out in the early twilight. The air was clear and sharp, a cool wind off the lake. The familiarity of these streets. She stopped for a decaf latte at a Starbucks and was struck by the barista’s brilliant green hair. ‘Your hair’s beautiful,’ she said, and the barista smiled. The pleasure of walking cold streets with a hot coffee in her hand.”
“Arthur nodded hello to the hot-dog guy who always stood on the same corner halfway between the hotel and the theater. The hot-dog guy beamed. A pigeon walked in circles near the base of the hot-dog stand, hoping for dropped garnishings and crumbs. The beauty of the pigeon’s luminescent neck.”
The crystalline beauty of the writing, the naming of things–as Natalie Goldberg would say–the rendering of small true details: this is why STATION ELEVEN is both excellent dystopian fiction and exquisite literary fiction. It captures so specifically the loveliness and foibles of the world we live in now–and issues a warning about all we stand to lose.
To buy STATION ELEVEN, please click here. Enjoy!
* Please come back next week for another #FridayReads. *