At first blush, it sounds like the same old story — a literary author writes a novel set in the post-apocalyptic future, and then complains when people describe it as science fiction. But actually, Emily St. John Mandel's debate with the Washington Post's Ron Charles represents a bit of progress.
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Mandel's novel Station Eleven just became a National Book Award finalist, which is a huge big deal. Writing about this, the Washington Post's Ron Charles observed that this was one of very few science fiction books ever to get on the NBA short list. To which Mandel responded, on Twitter, that she doesn't "think of Station Eleven as sci-fi."
Literary agent Ginger Clark chimed in, saying that Station Eleven doesn't have any new technology in it — it's just a book about the human race being all but wiped out by the plague.
At the same time, it's a book set in the future. And it's making predictions about the global impact of a catastrophe the likes of which we haven't seen in the modern era. So for my money, it's clearly science fiction according to most definitions — like all post-apocalyptic fiction, it's fundamentally a work of speculation about the future. Plus something can be both a literary novel and a science fiction novel, since those are two separate genres that often overlap, in one direction or the other.
So why is this progress? Because when Mandel talked to Charles further about this labeling issue, she was very clear that it's a marketing concern, plain and simple. She previously wrote literary books with crime in them, and was surprised when they were labeled as crime novels, and then when she wrote a novel set partly in the future, she was surprised when it was labeled as science fiction. (She switched from crime to the future because she "didn't want to be pigeonholed.") But she adds:
My only objection to these categories is that when you have a book like mine that doesn't fit neatly into any category, there's a real risk that readers who only read 'literary fiction' won't pick it up because they think they couldn't possibly like sci-fi, while sci-fi readers will pick up the book based on the sci-fi categorization, and then be disappointed because the book isn't sci-fi enough.
In other words, she's recognizing that these are purely marketing labels, that attempt in an imperfect fashion to describe the contents of a work of fiction — and their only purpose is to help a book find the audience that's most likely to find it, based on their preconceptions about books.
(At the same time, if someone reads Station Eleven and then is moved to go on and read other great books of the same ilk, like A Canticle for Leibowitz or J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World, or Doris Lessing's Martha Quest novels, so much the better. Part of the marvel of books is how they lead you to discover other books that you never would have found otherwise.)