The all-caps jacket copy for the paperback edition of Station Eleven, a novel by Can-Am writer Emily St. John Mandel, reads as follows: “An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse”. Dotted around the front cover were similarly bloated adjectives like “Epic”, (The Globe and Mail); “Magnificent” (Booklist) “Mesmerizing” (People Magazine); “Haunting”, (The Seattle Times). On the inside, there’s more descriptive lard: “compelling”, “fearlessly imagined”, “sweeping”, “exciting”, “thought-provoking”, “ambitious”, “darkly lyrical”, “achingly beautiful”, “unsettling”, “haunting”, “explosive”, “compulsive”, “shimmering”, and “astonishing”.
Elsewhere on the cover, George R.R. Martin, who didn’t manage the Beatles but did write the genre novels that inspired Game of Thrones and who has roughly the social and political imaginative range of late-in-life George II of England, called the book “deeply melancholy…but wonderfully elegiac.” The book was also, according to the jacket copy assembler, “recognized” to various degrees by eleven book awards, including a contest called “The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction”. That’s a notion that calls up images I don’t even want to think about: people in nineteenth century waistcoats praising capitalist splendour while, I don’t know, diddling their underlings and reading novels?
What I’m suggesting is that there was so much hype being pumped into this very modest novel that I was surprised when it didn’t explode when I opened it to begin reading.
Don’t get me wrong. None of this means that Ms. St. John Mandel isn’t a fine writer or a nice person. She writes perfectly acceptable prose and is, I’m sure, a nice person and an attentive parent when the nanny has a day off. The problem I have is that what she’s written—a just over 300 page novel somewhere safely within the fuzzy spectrum between Science Fiction and mainstream industrial fiction, isn’t really worthy of most of those adjectives. It is more or less dead-centre to the manual taught at every middling creative writing mill in North America, and thus has its literary lips pursed so attentively toward the marketplace that it is a micron away from commercial ass-kissing.
Still, I read this novel to its end, and was, since I’m weak-minded, mildly swept up into its illusory world, probably because I knew most of the Toronto locations in which most of its pre-apocalypse chapters were set. But while I read I could see too much of the novelistic wiring and infrastructure; I endured its set pieces and the emotions it was amphetamizing, and I groaned as the McGuffins dropped into place. That said, Station Eleven is a pleasant enough read, but nothing profound is proposed in it, unless you’re inclined to think that it is a profound insight that post-apocalypse life won’t consist of people whining about how terrific the pre-apocalypse world was and how much they miss it, but rather, people living in the survivalist moments that befall them with a reasonable degree of strategic insight.
I was already pretty sure before I opened Station Eleven’s cover that few post-apocalyse survivors—if there are going to be any—will spend little energy pursuing their Pre-Apoc neuroses or brushing debris from their Yoga mats. They’ll be too busy with the permanent search for weapons they’ll need to fend off the more seriously-crazed survivors, for either neuroses or Yoga mats –or the semi-deep thoughts that Ms St. John Mandel plants in her characters’ heads.
The twin gold standards in science fiction, it seems to me, are Phillip K. Dick and Ursula LeGuin. Dick could—and still can, as anyone who’s watched Amazon’s twenty episode adaption of Dick’s 1962 masterpiece The Man in the High Castle knows—make you experience what it’s like to be unable to distinguish between what’s real and what’s a purposeful distortion of reality. LeGuin, at her best at almost the opposite end of the imaginative universe in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) was able to make sense of the female need for community in both the most casual and extreme of circumstances.
The purposeful distortion of reality has become, since Dick’s time, arguably Western civilization’s most pervasive and destructive cultural phenomena, one powerful enough, it now seems, to have elected a man president of the United States. That make’s Dick’s stories more relevant than they were when he wrote them. Meanwhile, there’s no need to argue that we have split into so many exclusionary political and social factions in the crazed pursuit of radical self-determination that the sense of political commonwealth that LeGuin so vividly imagined, and on which democracy has always depended, increasingly feels like it is out of our grasp, somewhere in the theoretical, or lost in the Mall, and that every imagination we have of inclusive community is collapsing into yet more factions and exceptions.
What I’m suggesting is that Ms. St. John Mandel’s perfectly nice novel doesn’t hit any profound notes. At best it does make the astute point that survivors of an apocalyptic collapse of civilization will see the survivors more concerned with daily life than with lamenting the epic proportions of the collapse. It tells us nothing about the world we’re in, in other words, that an issue of Glamour Magazine won’t. I’m also suggesting that it (therefore) isn’t “magnificent” or “fearlessly imagined”, “sweeping”, “exciting” “darkly lyrical”, “achingly beautiful”, unsettling”, “haunting”, “explosive”, “compulsive”, “shimmering”, or “astonishing”. It isn’t really very “ambitious”, either. It’s a competently-constructed cultural and commercial widget, produced for a fairly low-level market with market-specific tools—and no, there’s nothing wrong with that, except when someone tries to elevate it above its wildest ambitions by slinging adjectives at it.
So I’m also suggesting that “darkly glittering” it ain’t. And really, what does “darkly glittering” mean? Who in hell writes this crap, anyway? Did the jacket copy assembler who wrote that description have to spend years of his/her life buried in clichés and overreaching adjectives to not recognize that she/he was blowing thick blue smoke up poor Ms. St. John Mandel’s literary posterior? And once you and I are buried neck deep in this crap, how are we going to see straight when real literature or a timely piece of long-form thinking, or just a modest genre novel is put in front of us?
1000 words, August 9, 2018