Station Eleven Station Eleven question

Dystopian Fiction and Real-World Violence
Shelby Meyerhoff Shelby Jun 13, 2016 08:13AM
After reading The Girl with All the Gifts and the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on vacation this week, and then coming back to the news of this weekend, I’ve been thinking about dystopian fiction and societal violence.

Within dystopian fiction, there are books that provide detailed allegories of how social and political systems can function, and books where the system is more of a backdrop for examining how human nature functions. 1984 is focused on the fictional world of Oceania, and examining how war, propaganda, surveillance, and torture are used as tools for a government to control its residents. The main character is a kind of everyman on whom these forces act. The Handmaid's Tale is similar, with a main character who is more navigating a political system than acting on it. Atwood constructs her fictional world, the Republic of Gilead, as an intentionally-thin critique of far-right American evangelicals’ views on reproductive rights and the role of women in the early 1980’s (the time in which the Handmaid’s Tale was written).

The advantages of using dystopian fiction for social and political critique are on display in these classics. Storytelling, characters, and plot pull us readers in, while simultaneously focusing our attention on the system or ideology to be examined. And because the genre is fiction, the author can put us readers at just enough distance to notice things that we can’t see when looking at our own worlds up close. (Compelling sociology books often pull the same trick, using a different approach).

But recently, I find that the very books I’m enjoying most – new books of dystopian fiction – feel not just distant from our contemporary realities, but even at odds with them.

The Girl with All the Gifts is a good example: fascinating characters facing a threat that you’d be unlikely to encounter in the real world, against the backdrop of a vaguely-rendered political system. Another is Station Eleven, which tells the life stories of an ensemble of characters living just before and after an apocalyptic pandemic.
Why do I love these books? Because the writing is vivid, the characters are amazingly rendered (like all great characters, I feel like I know them), the interpersonal dilemmas are real, and the plot is well-paced and carefully constructed.

But something is gnawing at me:

The “before” in these books – i.e. the world that we as readers actually live in right now -- is rendered as idyllic. In The Girl with All the Gifts, a character in the “after” finds a pocketbook in an abandoned church, inside which there is a condom and a set of car keys with a tracking device. These objects wistfully remind him of “a time when the worst things anyone had to worry about were unsafe sex and forgetting where they parked their car.”

The characters in Station Eleven are so filled with nostalgia for the technologically advanced past that it’s hard to pick out a single passage from the book. Much like 1984 invited us to see the political mechanisms of World War II and the Cold War in a new way, Emily St. John Mandel is inviting us to see how miraculous the innovations of our current world are.

And the actual real-world in which we live currently live IS miraculous, but it also has elements of dystopia.

Unprotected sex is genuinely dangerous, yet consistent access to protection and contraception are out of reach for many people. And people are still fighting for the rights to control their own bodies, both in terms of sex and reproduction.

There wasn’t a single mention of climate change in Station Eleven, but I couldn’t stop thinking about climate change the whole time I was reading. Mandel's characters wander through a North America in which the weather seems conveniently hospitable, on the whole. Meanwhile in the real world, climate change is happening right now and is very likely to accelerate without immediate action, whereas an apocalyptic pandemic is not beginning right now. I hungered for some acknowledgment of this reality.

And I’d be eager to see what a shrewd novelist would make of our current gun violence problem, of a society in which civilians are invited to carry weapons capable of murdering 50 people in a single night, of a society in which schools, movie theaters, houses of worship, nightclubs and other public gathering places become targets for violence.

But what I long for isn’t the story of how that dystopian society acts upon us, upon characters feeling overwhelmed by a system beyond their control (as I know I did reading the news yesterday). Nor the story of a small band of heroes leading a larger movement through violent battles to overthrow that system (as in Harry Potter or The Hunger Games). I want to be drawn into a story of the world as we know it, yet seen anew, and somehow transformed by that seeing and by a movement (not a war) that can make the “after” world more fair and peaceful than the “before.”

M Jun 13, 2016 10:02PM   0 votes
Thoughtful and thought provoking.

M. Hong-Kingston once wrote that we need to stop focusing on adolescents and coming of age stories in the the US. That while Huck Finn (or Potter or Hunger Games) can tell us something about our awkward, untrained selves, what is needed is a novel that tells us how to behave as grown-ups.

You may be experiencing a similar feeling. Would Ursula LeGuin help? Not Earthsea which is a coming of age, but perhaps Dispossessed or Left Hand Darkness?

Anyway, thank you for your review. Gives much to ponder.

Shelby Meyerhoff Hi M, That's an interesting point about the limitations of coming of age stories, thanks for mentioning it. And for recommending LeGuin! ...more
Jun 15, 2016 05:49AM · flag

What you're after may not be too common.
I'm going to be simplistic (and therefore wrong) but it's left-wingers who write about climate change and left-wingers think change comes from social conflict. These days, the future looks grim to left-wingers and the most peaceful left-wing utopias tend to have war in their past. As in, it gets worse before it gets better.
There are techno-utopians who see a movement empowered by technology bringing about a kind of utopia but these people tend to be right-wingers who don't take climate change or violence seriously (if only because they think such problems can easily be solved by capitalists equipped with the right technologies). There are a few right-wing liberal award-winning stories in that vein.
There are left-wingers who are very optimistic about science and technology in the immediate future but they tend to go either for dystopias (see cyberpunk) or for the rapture of the nerds.
Also, writing about climate change and gun control is a good way to antagonize many Anglo SF fans.

Gerd That last point is probably a good argument in favour of it. How's the line about art not being art unless it offends somebody? ...more
Jun 16, 2016 11:36PM

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