Emily St. John Mandel wrote Station Eleven in the early 2010s and published it in 2014. So this is technically a backlist choice. However, with the pandemic-related storyline and the recent HBO adaptation, Station Eleven is more relevant than ever. I’ll review both the book and its adaptation since I watched the show immediately after finishing the book. Short summary is that I loved the book but hated what the HBO team did with the adaptation.
Set mostly in a post-pandemic era, Station Eleven (the book) follows the arc of two main characters and many minor characters. Mandel integrates all of them together around the light of an actor named Arthur Leander. The book opens as he dies onstage performing King Lear. Outside the theater, a soon-to-be pandemic flu has hit the city and the world. It’s more like Ebola than Covid-19, killing its victims within hours.
Mandel moves her story from the years prior to Arthur’s fateful night to a few weeks time that happens twenty years later. It’s a nonlinear adventure, with various viewpoints and opportunities to know a few characters both pre and post-pandemic. While telling the story, Mandel explores human survival, art, tragedy, and even touches on lighter moments. Given the subject matter, it should be dark and dismal. But it’s not.
While Arthur is the hub of the character wheel, Mandel explores the lives he touches with even more detail. His oldest friend, Clark, a wannabe actor who ends up as a corporate consultant is one spoke. Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, is another. Their marriage is fairly short-lived, partly because she’d rather work on her artistic project, a graphic novel called Station Eleven. We also meet Arthur’s second wife, Elizabeth, and their son Tyler. One of his fellow actors in King Lear is a child actor named Kirsten, and Mandel uses her as a second hub in this interlocking plot. We follow her primarily in the After (post-pandemic) era where she’s part of a roaming group of musicians and actors. Lastly, Mandel follows Jeevan, who jumps from the audience to the stage when Arthur starts to fail.
It’s a complex group and includes a wide variety of minor characters as well. But Mandel effectively integrates each of these folks into the plot wheel, winding their stories together with grace.
Times and Places
As we follow the main characters, our trip goes from Hollywood to Toronto to the areas of Michigan near the shores of Lake Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. We take a brief jaunt to Malaysia as well. And as I mentioned before, Mandel deftly spins us from many years prior to the pandemic to many years after. She’s an artist who doesn’t reveal the whole canvas until it’s complete but dips her brush in many vistas and story arcs. Yet, once revealed, everything fits into a pleasing completed tale.
Now my feelings about the adaptation are complicated. I love that HBO took on this project. The synchronicity of both watching and reading this in the wake of an actual pandemic isn’t lost on me. However, I agree with showrunner Patrick Somerville’s description of it as “aggressive.”
Here’s how I see it. The book, its characters, and storyline are like a deck of cards, neatly assembled and connected. The show is a four-year-old who takes the cards, pulls them out of their stack, and tosses them up in the air. The original bones are there. But, oh my, how the show changed plot, character, and locations.
Is it true to the “spirit” of the book? Yes, for the most part. Parts of it are darker, while others ignore Mandel’s tendrils of inhumanity and danger. My husband, who didn’t read the book, thought the series was great. If I hadn’t rolled right from book to adaptation, I think it would have also worked for me. But that’s not how it happened, so the show left me wondering why they didn’t hew more closely to Mandel’s vision. Still, it appears she liked their take on the story.
I loved Station Eleven in its original version, written by Emily St. John Mandel. She weaves an intriguing tapestry that is by turns tragic, inspiring, and beautiful. If you love speculative fiction, this is an excellent adventure, even as we navigate pandemic waters ourselves.
I didn’t love Station Eleven, the HBO-adapted series. It commercializes the story, turning it into a morality tale with a pat, Hollywood ending. After the last two years, we know more than ever that life isn’t like that.
Pair the book with something else speculative, if you can manage the darkness, like Earthseed from Octavia Butler. Or pick something light and joyous, with similar nods to nature, like the poetry of Mary Oliver.