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‘Station Eleven,’ COVID-19, and the end of the end of the world

Emily St. John Mandel didn’t got down to kill 99.99 p.c of the human race when she started writing Station Eleven. The 2014 bestseller, on which the acclaimed (and now full) HBO Max collection relies, began as a collection of scenes a few touring band of performers very like her real-life pals from dance theater faculty in Toronto. She pictured them performing Shakespeare in rural Canada, the place she grew up; a tough however good life with out many of the comforts of trendy expertise.

However what would ship Shakespearean actors completely to the woods, performing performs for tech-free cities? Nicely, the similar factor that leads the hero of The Postman (an identical 1985 novel by David Brin, additionally a 1997 film starring Kevin Costner) to journey round doing Shakespeare for shanty-town audiences: the end of civilization. Each tales are essentially optimistic of their visions of a world rebuilding — however each required their authors to reverse-engineer a backstory of how and why billions of us had died.

The mechanism Mandel occurred to decide on was a pandemic, unaware that an actual one would strike six years after she wrote Station Eleven. (The HBO collection was additionally commissioned lengthy earlier than anybody uttered the phrases COVID-19.) However audiences are wiser now. We’re extra conscious of how laborious it’s to kill off that a lot of our world with a virus, even one which mutates. The sooner it kills its hosts, the much less it may possibly unfold. “The virus in Station Eleven would have burned out earlier than it may kill off the total inhabitants,” Mandel freely admitted toVulture in March 2020.

Provided that we have logged all the potential civilization-killing asteroids, on condition that local weather change is a persistent, current disaster greatest represented metaphorically (as in Do not Look Up), creators are working out of methods to end the world as briskly and cleanly as our apocalypse fantasies appear to demand. Mandel needed an occasion that might assure a clean canvas, a “20 years after” full of the pleasure of eternal artwork as a lot as the sorrow of unspeakable trauma. She might end up as the final author who may achieve this in a vogue her contemporaries discovered plausible. Station Eleven may mark the end of the end of the world.

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For The Postman, Brin selected nuclear conflict, the more than likely apocalypse anybody may see in 1985; by Mandel’s period, the bomb was just about off the desk for anybody making an attempt to droop our disbelief. Not solely have we seen extra fictional postwar worlds than you’ll be able to shake a geiger counter at, we’re additionally extra conscious now of the methods such an setting would proceed to hurt us. Even a limited nuclear exchange may blot out the solar, trigger widespread famine, and poison the environment with radiation for generations to return.

Pandemics have been, in 2014, the most dependable technique of clear fictional genocide left standing. Nonetheless, few authors have dared to make use of them to kill off as a lot of the human race as Mandel does. In my March 2020 survey of the style, I recognized simply 4 — the most well-known being Stephen King’s epic The Stand, through which the bio-engineered bug generally known as Captain Journeys kills a mere 99.4 p.c of humanity. Just one writer has dared to kill a better share of humanity — Mary Shelley in The Final Man (1826) — and she gave her virus seven years to do its job.

Station Eleven’s Georgia flu is a super-fast-spreading extremely mutated virus that someway manages to kill practically all 7-plus billion people in three weeks. Correctly, Mandel did not expend a lot effort explaining the way it may try this. She spends solely a handful of early chapters in the pandemic period. We see the world collapse from the perspective of Jeevan Chaudhary, who solely is aware of what he sees on TV whereas locked down in his brother’s Chicago condo. We droop our disbelief largely as a result of information anchors freak out and flee the studio.

The cast of 'Station Eleven' watching TV during the early days of its fictional pandemic.

Kirsten (Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis) remembers the first few days of Georgia flu with Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) and Javeen (Himesh Patel)
Credit score: Ian Watson / HBO Max

Equally, the HBO model of Station Eleven affords little or no info on Georgia flu. As a result of it jumps round in time much more than the e book, and focuses much more on pleasant inventive distractions (equivalent to younger Kirsten writing a play based mostly on the “Station Eleven” graphic novel), the present offers us little or no time to contemplate the believability of its background apocalypse. One TV voice tells us that the virus “would not incubate, it explodes.” However in the event you’re searching for a real epidemiological nightmare, what you want is a lethal and extremely transmissible virus that does incubate for a very long time — a month or two, say — so we will unfold it far and vast through air journey earlier than anybody begins to indicate signs.

Now that we have been by the COVID-19 wringer, one of the least plausible elements of Station Eleven is that so many individuals immediately belief what specialists are saying. The truth is, denial has a stronger grip on the human thoughts than any of us suspected. Jim (Tim Simons, aka Jared in Veep), the hapless enterprise colleague of “Station Eleven” creator Miranda, could also be the the most plausible character in the present — as a result of when the lethal virus hits his resort in Malaysia, he responds by enjoying golf.

On the flip facet, now we have our experiences with lockdowns, border closings, and different measures that, although imperfect, efficiently slowed the unfold of COVID and its Delta and Omicron variants (in some countries more than others). The present offers us only one instance of a big group of virus-free individuals who efficiently institute a lockdown towards Georgia flu: the passengers at Severn Metropolis airport. Their self-imposed isolation works, and the solar-powered airport turns into house to the Museum of Civilization.

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Absolutely, although, there could be many extra such lockdown places — most likely sufficient to maintain important infrastructure like electrical energy and the web intact (particularly in the age of photo voltaic panels and wind farms), undoubtedly sufficient to spice up humanity’s survival price far past the 0.01 p.c stage. Absolutely communities the world over would do what villages in Sierra Leone did to assist comprise the Ebola outbreak of 2015: isolate themselves, stopping anybody getting into or leaving. We’re extra resilient, extra collaborative, and extra prepared to remain put for a very good trigger, than Station Eleven would have us assume.

However maybe the biggest lesson COVID-19 has to show Station Eleven is that you simply need not kill 99.99 p.c of humanity to create generational trauma. This virus has killed 5.5 million folks in two years, which is method lower than 0.1 p.c of the international inhabitants, and we who lived by it’ll always remember it. It has not supplied the clean canvas on which to construct a brand new civilization that we appear to crave. You may should construct your geodesic dome-filled intentional neighborhood at Burning Man if you cannot discover wherever in the Michigan wilderness to do it. However both method, you will nonetheless should take care of the messy, imperfect, capitalism-filled world as it’s.

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