Love a Riveting Apocalypse Tale? I’ve Got One for You
Mandel’s novel ‘Station Eleven’ is markedly different than the TV show
About four years ago we were all facing a vicious monster: the onset of COVID-19. Now that the epic, worldwide disaster is more controlled, I’m fascinated by how apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories continue to be incredibly popular.
Look no further than Netflix’s smash hit from the Obamas and Julia Roberts (among many others): Leave the World Behind. Then there’s The Last of Us, a huge hit when it debuted on HBO (following its video game success). Production on season 2 of Last reportedly begins next month. And are you ready for the sixth AMC spinoff of The Walking Dead, debuting in February?
Among recent post-apocalyptic book releases there’s Hell Divers XI: Renegades (that’s right: 11th in a series!) from USA Today bestselling author Nicholas Sansbury Smith, and The Olympian Affair, part of a New York Times bestselling series by Jim Butcher, to name but two.
Those are just the tip of the apocalypse-story iceberg — one that isn’t melting, but instead growing.
On the one hand, this might seem like a lot of us are gluttons for mental punishment. People might have said, “Enough! Give me merry unicorns and other mind-warming nonsense!” (No offense, if I just described you.) Instead, I think a lot of us can empathize a little more with the characters caught in the shock and fear of these tales. We can slip into their shoes even more easily. And maybe we’re a little more thankful our world isn’t quite so bad right now. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.
For those who don’t fall in the merry-unicorn category, I want to draw your attention to a book that I recently read, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. In it, a virus rips through the world, killing most of humanity. The rapidity and scope of this particular pandemic outstrips COVID-19 by a long shot.
The Station Eleven vision of the future flies well past an initial period of devastation and horror to a time when a small band of artists and the curator of an odd museum give the world a sense of reflection and new beginnings — that life can go on in surprisingly hopeful ways. It’s not all about the terror.
HBO has released a TV version of it Station Eleven. But if you’ve watched the show and assume that reading the book will be a repeat experience, think again. They’re quite different. It’s as if a chef sized up a plate of smothered chicken in a mushroom-miso-bourbon sauce. (Yes, that exists, and I love it.) Then she decided to turn it into a chicken and mushroom stir-fry.
Both versions have legitimacy. (And I love stir-fry.) But in the book, the characters reactions to various shocking events are more nuanced. And at the same time, the novel is riveting. I really felt like what transpired could actually happen.
While the series is also riveting in many places, the show’s creators have taken a lot of liberties with the overall storyline and the characters’ life journeys. The episodes have more dramatic spikes, because the writers were working in a different medium that requires it. In other words, it’s just a different kettle of fish stew. (Have I made you hungry yet?)
In fact, in a CBC interview last year, Mandel talked with Michael Greyeyes about how much she likes the series. Yes, she might have said that because she has financial ties to the show. But it seems believable to me.
Weirdly enough, when I was reading Eleven late at night, the characters entered my dreams. One morning I actually had to double check that the awful scenario I’d dreamt about wasn’t actually in the book. That’s never happened to me before with a novel. And it speaks to Mandel’s talents. (You might have read some of her other books, which include Sea of Tranquility and The Glass Hotel.)
Eleven might seem prophetic, because it was published in 2014, long before COVID. But that kind of apocalyptic premonition is what many science fiction writers are known for. My shero, Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents) is but one case in point.
The focus on hope, which I mentioned before, is something that Mandel discussed in her interview with Greyeyes. She added, “While we might be able to imagine ourselves committing desperate acts in a desperate time, I’d like to think that 15 or 20 years out we would have chilled out a little bit.”
LOVE AND MIRACLES
Mandel also explained that she wanted to write something that wasn’t primarily focused on terror. The story’s engine is a pandemic, but that wasn’t her primary interest. Instead, she wanted to write about absence of modern “miracles” in a post technological landscape and the “incredible fragility” of our world. In other words, what would it be like if marvels we take for granted — from basics like electricity to the latest versions of AI — were no longer operational?
To explore all that, she created a traveling band of actors and musicians bringing entertainment and art to various communities. And there’s also a character, trapped in an airport, who creates a museum of various castoff possessions that speak to life before the pandemic, and which are no longer useful or relevant. Among them are passports, as air flight is no longer possible.
The book explores how stories — such as an obscure comic book series called Station Eleven and the works of Shakespeare — can shape our thinking or obsess us.
Mandel structures the story so that nearly all the major characters — some of whom are strangers to each other — love one particular man, or have had momentous experiences that involve him. That man is a famous actor who dies from a heart attack at the novel’s start. He leaves behind a trail of friends and ex-wives. And he is keenly remembered by a person who tried to save him. It’s almost like they are spokes in a wheel of love, with the famous actor at the center.
That’s a clever, engaging approach. And something I admire as a fellow sci-fi novelist. It’s taken me too long to discover Mandel. And I can’t wait to read more of her work.