Expanding on my short review of Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven, I’d like to talk about literary pedigree. My opinions are probably wrong, but ignorance has never stopped me from forming strong opinions.
Which other works of fiction, in text or on film, dominate the book? Shakespeare, of course, but also Star Trek: Voyager. The former much more so than the latter. We see King Lear quoted at length, while the reference to Star Trek comes from the Shakespeare Troupe’s motto: Survival Is Insufficient, which Ms. Mandel makes sure we know comes from Star Trek because the characters say exactly that, and it is the bon mot that wormed its way into every professional review for the book I’ve read. The passage (on page 121):
“All I’m saying,” Dieter said, twelve hours out of St. Deborah by the Water, “is that quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” He was walking near Kirsten and August.
It’s a winking allusion, accepting that the literary world in which we live is one where The New Yorker runs television criticism next to theater and film (I’m sure at some point film was considered in the same light). It’s beyond a winking allusion, it is an acknowledgment of, for better or worse, the intellectual landscape we inhabit. Station Eleven fits into it nicely. Shakespeare and Star Trek referenced within the space of the same page!
I like Shakespeare and I like Star Trek, and I don’t like geekier than thou missives. What bothered me was the only reference to another piece of post-apocalyptic literature, oblique in the novel but spelled out explicitly in the acknowledgments. In the book it’s offered up with the same sheepishness as the reference to Star Trek. Two of the characters are discussing the end of the world as it happens around them, and one of them refuses to believe it.
Elizabeth began telling him about a book she’d read once, years ago when she’d been stuck—but not this stuck, obviously—in an airport, and it was a vampire book, actually, not her usual sort of thing, but it had a device she kept thinking of. The setup was post-apocalyptic, she said, so you naturally assumed as you were reading it that the world had ended, all of it, but then it became clear through an ingenious flash-forward device that actually it wasn’t all of civilization that was lost, it was just North America, which had been placed under quarantine to keep the vampirism from spreading.
What bothered me about this passage was that I was pretty sure I knew the book she was talking about, even though I’ve never read it or read about it in more than passing. The book is The Passage, by Justin Cronin. I knew it was not I Am Legend, which I also have not read, or some book I’ve never heard of. I know this because Justin Cronin is a former English professor at Rice and a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and it is okay to reference (and read) his young adult series.
I think this is what bothered me about the book. It’s not the literary treatment of sci-fi, with which I am very much down, it’s the feeling that a lack of interest in sci-fi has been buried in order to write the book. But where I feel the Station Eleven has, in many ways, entered into an uncanny valley of science fiction, that same quality is what allows it to win literary accolades.