Stations, Everyone

Station11There has been a movement, of late, among some sci-fi authors, to envision a more optimistic future. I have always been a fan of dystopias, myself. Perhaps it’s the working-class mentality backed up by being raised in poverty speaking, but sometimes I feel that collapse is more fair than progress. What passes for progress, anyway. Maybe I’m thinking this way because I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This book has been on my radar for some time since it is one of the more hopeful dystopias out there. The story of a group among the very few who survive banding into a traveling troop of musicians and thespians is about the most hopeful outcome I can imagine. Not a day passes when I don’t feel the effacement of humanity that has been slowly taking place since I first became aware of the world. Sure, I do appreciate the strides made in medicine. Of this internet, which is the only place anyone ever really sees me, I’m less sanguine. It has its benefits, but even Mandel mentions the cell-phone zombies that are all too real and as omnipresent as an omnipotent deity used to be.

Station Eleven has, as many dystopias do, a religious sect that emerges after society collapses. This element of bleak futures is actually very accurate, I anticipate. We’re constantly being told by the “intellectuals” of the public variety that religion is for weak-minded dreamers with milquetoast aspirations for fantasy. The fact is the vast majority of people in the world are religious. The numbers are nowhere even near close. If a pandemic were to wipe out all but one percent (and hopefully it wouldn’t be the one percenters that survive) those who remain would, without doubt, turn to religion. People are easily led in this area of life. Mandel gives us The Prophet. His vision of the world is not helpful, but he has no trouble gathering a following. He’s also somewhat messianic: child of a single parent, raised in Israel, he comes to bring a sword to a nation already prostrate in the dust. This is powerful stuff.

Societies that try to rebuild themselves after traumas quite often rely on religion. This is hardly surprising as civilization itself began as religions coalesced into temples and their priesthoods. What is surprising is that so many intelligent people today can’t see just how important religion is to our species. As I suggested before, part of this is that religion defies simple definition. It’s easy to belittle “magical” thinking when it’s assumed religion has to do only with the supernatural. Religion, however, reaches into whatever we believe. Some ideas in modern cosmology, derived from physicists and their mathematics, can look sort of religious when viewed from a certain angle. As those who write dystopias know, religion is complex. It may lead to massive destruction. Chances are, however, that if there are any human beings left to crawl out of whatever pit we dig, they will do so with religious ideas in their heads. As usual, the writers have foreseen it.

3 responses to “Stations, Everyone

  1. It seems easier for most people to imagine a dystopia than a utopia.

    Maybe that is because most people have more personal experience of failure than success. Life is full of failure, except for the one percenters. The average person rarely gets exactly what they’ve always wanted out of life.

    This might be different in other societies. I’d be curious to see the ratio of dystopia stories to utopia stories in various countries. Do well functioning social democracies and welfare states have fewer dystopias and more utopias? Or do dystopias dominate everywhere?

    I’m wary about arguing that dystopia represent the normal state of the human mind. People are easily influenced by the social and cultural environment. It determines what kind of stories are told.

    Of course, I can only speak for myself living in this society at this time. I have noted that there has been a lack of utopian stories for quite a while now. The last clearly utopian story in the mainstream was Star Trek TNG. Even the three Star Trek series that followed TNG had a darker bent. I’ve always wondered about our obsession with dystopias. It does speak to this era following the aughts with its 2000 election fiasco, 9/11 attack, War On Terror, Great Recession, etc.

    Hollywood, television, and the book industry has been obsessed with dark fantasy for quite a while now. There is a theory that fantasy becomes highly popular during uncertain times. An example of that is how popular the Wizard of Oz was during the Great Depression era, a movie that definitely could be categorized as dark fantasy. The theory is that fantasy both helps people to escape reality and to imagine different realities.

    I noticed a book by M. Keith Booker, The Post-utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s. The author discusses escapist fantasy and the utopian impulse during the Great Depression. He points out that there was “a genuinely radical American cinema in the Depression years.” Of course, the capitalist order faced a much more dire challenge back then as compared to the present.

    I must admit that, apparently like so many others, I have a penchant for dystopias, along with dark fantasy/weird in general and philosophical horror. But I also miss the optimistic vision of Star Trek TNG, a show that was on tv when I was in middle school and high school. I have a soft place in my heart for the Star Trek future world.

    If you’re familiar with Star Trek, you know that religion tends to only be dealt with indirectly. The main exception to that was the DS9 series. The religious storyline included plenty of conflict and violence, but it also took religion seriously on its own terms. The later Voyager series also dealt with religion in some depth.

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    • You may well be onto something about other societies favoring more positive outlooks. I’ve been reading about indigenous cultures and their much more holistic relationship to the world. Our western culture that wants to dominate doesn’t seem to realize that destruction is inherent in the equation. I can see a positive future, but it doesn’t come without a radical change. Desire for wealth makes us complacent.

      I only ever watched the original Star Trek, but I know there have been some positive developments in some sci-fi circles. Station Eleven takes one of its themes from Star Trek TNG, by the way, as Mandel directly acknowledges.

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      • I haven’t read Station Eleven. I can see the connection to Star Trek TNG. Captain Picard is a cultured figure and, since the crew is multicultural, culture is an ongoing theme (including the arts).

        A large part of their in role exploring the universe is as cultural emissaries. The Federation Fleet aren’t primarily military ships. They are essentially cities with families, schools, gardens, etc. The ships act as intermediaries between societies and as beacons of hope in conflict zones.

        Both Station Eleven and Star Trek is post-apocalyptic futures. But the earth of Star Trek managed to avoid total catastrophe and collapse.

        By the way, a few years from now is when the Bell Riots are supposed to occur. They were a turning point for humanity. It created a shift in attitude toward the disadvantaged and helped put our society on the path toward the Federation.

        A couple years after the Bell Riots, however, began WWIII that lasted decades. One could imagine that religion became a major factor during that era, as people tried to cope with such massive changes and destructive upheaval.

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