In the time of Coronavirus, what we can learn from dystopian fiction?

by Dr Deirdre Flynn, Lecturer in 21st Century Literature, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

 

Just before Ireland entered into lockdown, I finished teaching Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The bestselling novel published in 2014 is about a global pandemic, the Georgia flu, that wipes out 99% of the world’s population.

Had I known that a global pandemic was going to hit, would I have picked a different novel? I don’t know. But Mandel’s novel is not a depressing read, nor is it a manual for living through lockdown. Rather it is an excellent piece of speculative fiction, that asks us to examine how we live in the 21st Century. It asks us what is important in life.

I’ve taught, researched and read dystopian fiction for years. In one of the modules I taught, we would discuss what the author wanted readers to take from their novels. Was their story a criticism of contemporary society? Did it offer warnings on climate change? Technology? Censorship? Terrorism? How did these societies come to pass? Was it through social inertia? Poverty? Inequality? And what can we learn from speculative fiction?

One novel that always seemed the most likely was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, set in the United States of America in the 2020s. The students, and myself, were shocked how in 1993 Butler had in essence predicted the rise of a president like Trump. Her vision of the near future is eerie, including walled communities, massive inequality, indentured servitude, racism, political ineptitude, economy over social welfare. It is a frightening vision of the near future, and a President that wants ‘to make America great again’ (yes, that’s in the novel). It was always the most likely and most terrifying novel on that module. And Lauren, the protagonist learning to be self-sufficient, and grow her own food, could teach many of the new grow-your-own converts a thing or two.

Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale often came in for a lot of criticism because she didn’t resist in obvious ways. Her silence in the face of her torture was often called weak by students. How could she take that? Why wouldn’t she speak up? The reason was simple – because she wanted to survive. She wanted to stay alive for her daughter(s). Was her survival, and that of her child(ren) more important than her freedom? I think that is a question we are answering on a daily basis now.

However, when it came to Station Eleven, it seemed more implausible. Why? We had all heard of Ebola, swine flu, avian flu, SARS, even Foot and Mouth. In Mandel’s novel, the flu spreads quickly because of global air travel. The world comes to a complete stop. People are advised to stay indoors and stock up on essentials. It felt impossible that today this could happen, but now we know it’s not impossible.

‘Just like in the novel, the virus does not impact everyone equally’

Unlike Parable of the Sower, or The Handmaid’s Tale, Station Eleven is told in what Philip Smith calls a ‘forwards-backwards’ style[1]. Told from multiple and interconnecting perspectives, the action shifts from before the Georgia Flu to 20 years after the pandemic. It offers an interesting criticism of social media and celebrity culture, and Mandel has often said she wanted to see what we would keep in such a scenario – would we want to keep what’s best about the world we live in? These again are questions we are asking in what has been constantly referred to as the “new normal” as if such a constantly shifting state could offer any sense of stability to be considered the ‘new normal’. And just like in the novel, the virus does not impact everyone equally. The pandemic it is not a great leveller. We just have to look at residential care homes and Direct Provision to see how the most vulnerable are treated here in Ireland.

What can we learn from Station Eleven? Well if there’s one thing, it is the motto from the side of the Travelling Symphony’s carriage – ‘survival is insufficient’. To the group of actors and musicians that make up the troupe – art is important to life. And while we can, like many other critics, argue that Mandel’s use of Shakespeare is a little hokey, if not Western and colonial centred, the message is clear. Art, music, theatre are all essential to our lives. They give meaning and hope and joy and create a sense of community. Mandel sees theatre as one of the best things society has to offer, and for the people who are left behind, Shakespeare brings something to their existence, as essential as survival. Life is not just staying alive, it is living.

‘Life is not just staying alive, it is living’

As I write this, people are gathering to watch #DearIreland from the Abbey, and there’s a CovideoParty trending on Twitter. People are seeking out art and culture. They want shared experiences, like Facebook and Instagram live, or Zoom parties. Subscription services have seen their numbers grow as those quarantined seek out film, TV, and documentary. I recently collated a blog piece for the Irish Women’s Writing Network on work during the Covid19 crisis and everyone mentioned the importance of connection. Technology is helping us have these shared experiences. With the help of hashtags and houseparty we can share our collective enjoyment of art. And yet in the midst of all this our Government’s response to support artists was paltry and insulting. Unable to see the economic merit in art, the creative process, and its cultural value, Josepha Madigan  (Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaelteacht) offered the miserly sum of €1m to cover all of it. All the closed venues, the unemployed actors, writers, stage managers, singers, techies, administration…. Would all of them have to share this pot? And if you were on the COVID19 payment, you weren’t eligible.

Station Eleven is seeing a resurgence in sales ever since the Coronavirus started making its move around the world. People are turning to dystopian and speculative fiction to help make sense of our current situation. It can offer us warnings, suggest solutions, tell us to change before it’s too late. Dystopian fiction can highlight how wrong things could go if we don’t change. It also tells us that survival after chaos is not enough. We need to make sense of the trauma. We need love, connection, and we need art, and if we live in Station Eleven, we also need electricians.

[1] SMITH, P., 2016. Shakespeare, Survival, and the Seeds of Civilization in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Extrapolation., 57(3), pp. 289-VI.