Emily St. John Mandel did not set out to kill 99.99 percent of the human race when she began writing Station Eleven. The 2014 bestseller, on which the acclaimed (and now complete) HBO Max series is based, started as a series of scenes about a traveling band of performers much like her real-life friends from dance theater school in Toronto. She pictured them performing Shakespeare in rural Canada, where she grew up; a hard but good life without many of the comforts of modern technology.
But what would send Shakespearean actors permanently to the woods, performing plays for tech-free towns? Well, the same thing that leads the hero of The Postman (a similar 1985 novel by David Brin, also a 1997 movie starring Kevin Costner) to travel around doing Shakespeare for shanty-town audiences: the end of civilization. Both stories are fundamentally optimistic in their visions of a world rebuilding — but both required their authors to reverse-engineer a backstory of how and why billions of us had died.
The mechanism Mandel happened to choose was a pandemic, unaware that a real one would strike six years after she wrote Station Eleven. (The HBO series was also commissioned long before anyone uttered the words COVID-19.) But audiences are wiser now. We are more aware of how hard it is to kill off that much of our world with a virus, even one that mutates. The faster it kills its hosts, the less it can spread. “The virus in Station Eleven would have burned out before it could kill off the entire population,” Mandel freely admitted toVulture in March 2020.
Given that we’ve logged all the potential civilization-killing asteroids, given that climate change is a persistent, present crisis best represented metaphorically (as in Don’t Look Up), creators are running out of ways to end the world as briskly and cleanly as our apocalypse fantasies seem to demand. Mandel wanted an event that would guarantee a blank canvas, a “20 years after” filled with the joy of everlasting art as much as the sorrow of unspeakable trauma. She may end up as the last writer who could do so in a fashion her contemporaries found believable. Station Eleven could mark the end of the end of the world.
For The Postman, Brin chose nuclear war, the most likely apocalypse anyone could see in 1985; by Mandel’s era, the bomb was pretty much off the table for anyone trying to suspend our disbelief. Not only have we seen more fictional postwar worlds than you can shake a geiger counter at, we’re also more aware now of the ways such an environment would continue to harm us. Even a limited nuclear exchange could blot out the sun, cause widespread famine, and poison the atmosphere with radiation for generations to come.
Pandemics were, in 2014, the most reliable method of clean fictional genocide left standing. Still, few authors have dared to use them to kill off as much of the human race as Mandel does. In my March 2020 survey of the genre, I identified just four — the most famous being Stephen King’s epic The Stand, in which the bio-engineered bug known as Captain Trips kills a mere 99.4 percent of humanity. Only one author has dared to kill a higher percentage of humanity — Mary Shelley in The Last Man (1826) — and she gave her virus seven years to do its job.
Station Eleven‘s Georgia flu is a super-fast-spreading highly mutated virus that somehow manages to kill nearly all 7-plus billion humans in three weeks. Wisely, Mandel didn’t expend much effort explaining how it could do that. She spends only a handful of early chapters in the pandemic era. We see the world collapse from the perspective of Jeevan Chaudhary, who only knows what he sees on TV while locked down in his brother’s Chicago apartment. We suspend our disbelief in large part because news anchors freak out and flee the studio.
Kirsten (Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis) remembers the first few days of Georgia flu with Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) and Javeen (Himesh Patel)
Credit: Ian Watson / HBO Max
Similarly, the HBO version of Station Eleven offers very little information on Georgia flu. Because it jumps around in time even more than the book, and focuses even more on delightful creative distractions (such as young Kirsten writing a play based on the “Station Eleven” graphic novel), the show gives us very little time to consider the believability of its background apocalypse. One TV voice tells us that the virus “doesn’t incubate, it explodes.” But if you’re looking for a true epidemiological nightmare, what you need is a deadly and highly transmissible virus that does incubate for a long time — a month or two, say — so we can spread it far and wide via air travel before anyone starts to show symptoms.
Now that we’ve been through the COVID-19 wringer, one of the least believable aspects of Station Eleven is that so many people instantly trust what experts are saying. In fact, denial has a stronger grip on the human mind than any of us suspected. Jim (Tim Simons, aka Jared in Veep), the hapless business colleague of “Station Eleven” creator Miranda, may be the the most believable character in the show — because when the deadly virus hits his hotel in Malaysia, he responds by playing golf.
On the flip side, we have our experiences with lockdowns, border closings, and other measures that, though imperfect, successfully slowed the spread of COVID and its Delta and Omicron variants (in some countries more than others). The show gives us just one example of a large group of virus-free people who successfully institute a lockdown against Georgia flu: the passengers at Severn City airport. Their self-imposed isolation works, and the solar-powered airport becomes home to the Museum of Civilization.
Surely, though, there would be many more such lockdown locations — probably enough to keep essential infrastructure like electricity and the internet intact (especially in the age of solar panels and wind farms), definitely enough to boost humanity’s survival rate far beyond the 0.01 percent level. Surely communities the world over would do what villages in Sierra Leone did to help contain the Ebola outbreak of 2015: isolate themselves, preventing anyone entering or leaving. We are more resilient, more collaborative, and more willing to stay put for a good cause, than Station Eleven would have us think.
But perhaps the greatest lesson COVID-19 has to teach Station Eleven is that you don’t need to kill 99.99 percent of humanity to create generational trauma. This virus has killed 5.5 million people in two years, which is way less than 0.1 percent of the global population, and we who lived through it will never forget it. It has not provided the blank canvas on which to build a new civilization that we seem to crave. You’ll have to build your geodesic dome-filled intentional community at Burning Man if you can’t find anywhere in the Michigan wilderness to do it. But either way, you’ll still have to deal with the messy, imperfect, capitalism-filled world as it is.