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A Big Year for Dystopias: Background information when reading Station Eleven

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Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel X
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2015, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

A Big Year for Dystopias

This article relates to Station Eleven

Print Review

When Emily St. John Mandel was auctioning her novel, Station Eleven, in 2013, she was worried that the world was sick of dystopian fiction. "When I started writing, there were a few literary post-apocalyptic novels, but not quite the incredible glut that there is now…I was afraid the market might be saturated." Luckily for Mandel, the public is still hungry for speculative fiction; her book was sold for a six-figure advance.

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein coined the term "speculative fiction" in a 1947 essay. Broadly understood, it refers to stories that contain futuristic, fantastical, and/or supernatural elements. Some of the seminal works of speculative fiction are George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and their influence is still clear on contemporary writers such as Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and MaddAddam trilogy (2003–2013) are new classics of the genre.

Dystopian novels typically imagine a future world of environmental collapse, societal breakdown and oppression. With his vision of a small remnant of humanity struggling to eke out an existence in The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy paved the way for a whole new crop of stories set in a post-apocalyptic world. Like the members of the Traveling Symphony in Station Eleven, these tough folk have to engage in violent, unthinkable acts just to survive.

Young adult fiction, in particular, has enjoyed a boom in dystopian fiction over the last few years, represented by series like The Hunger Games and Divergent that have also been turned into movie franchises. YA novelist Moira Young, writing in The Guardian, hypothesizes that the popularity of dystopias has to do with the "zeitgeist" – "anxious adults – worried about the planet, the degradation of civil society and the bitter inheritance we're leaving for the young – write dystopian books. We create harsh, violent worlds. These are dark, sometimes bleak stories, but that doesn't mean they are hopeless."

Young notes that dystopias are fundamentally an updated version of the traditional quest narrative: "These are essentially heroes' journeys – they just happen to be set in an imagined future world…Something happens – an event, or a messenger arrives bearing news – and the protagonist is catapulted out of their normal existence into the unknown." This is certainly true of both Kirsten and Jeevan in Station Eleven.

Many novels with dystopian elements were successful in 2014. Here's a selection of the ones we've reviewed here at BookBrowse: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee, The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, California by Edan Lepucki, and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Others that skirt around the edges of the genre are the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted J by Howard Jacobson and Tigerman by Nick Harkaway.

Dystopian novels create believable situations we can relate to. They speak to the human condition but at the same time encourage us to question our current trajectory. Mandel herself thinks that speculative fiction is so popular because "it's a somewhat anxious time, and post-apocalyptic fiction is a way to channel our anxieties."

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to Station Eleven. It originally ran in December 2014 and has been updated for the June 2015 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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