White Futurism No Longer Holds Center Stage in HBO’s “Station Eleven”

The adaptation of the novel disrupts the typical apocalypse story by allowing marginalized characters to survive

Screen shot from HBO’s “Station Eleven”

Remember when Trump got elected and people started buying all the copies of 1984? It was like that, apparently, for Emily St. John Mandel in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and her 2014 post-apocalypse novel Station Eleven started once again flying off the shelves. The book is about a flu-like virus that kills almost everyone on earth, and a troupe of actors playing Shakespeare to scattered settlements in the aftermath. Six years after Station Eleven was published, its author suddenly found herself comforting her fans about a deadly virus in real time. “If it helps,” Mandel tweeted kindly to one sleepless reader, “as alarming as this moment is, I remain certain that this isn’t going to end with a traveling Shakespearean theatre company traversing the wasteland of the post-apocalypse.”

Her reader tweeted back: “That’s the part I was looking forward to.”

George R. R. Martin Backs Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven for Hugos  - Electric Literature

Hope. That’s what HBO tells me its new Station Eleven adaptation is all about: “an apocalypse that just might make you feel good,” in 10 episodes that cross the end of one pandemic year, and the beginning of yet another one. But what does it mean to look forward to an apocalypse? What does it mean to feel good about the end of the world? 

The word “apocalypse” in the vernacular of early 2000s American pop culture means ending: end of civilization, end of ethics. It means grizzled men with no feelings aside from paternalism and revenge shooting their way through hordes of zombie cannibals. It means surviving, whatever it takes. The apocalypse-as-ending fantasy looks forward to a world in which any violence is justified by the fear of one’s own end. Some Americans already live there—are quite comfortable in the world of stand-your-ground defense laws against the nebulous threat posed by Black teenagers walking home with candy in their hands. 

That’s the apocalypse Station Eleven inherits. Still, the root of the word, as I’ve often been reminded these last two years, is not “end” but “unveiling.” Sometimes when we talk about apocalypse what we’re looking forward to is the idea that there’s something different on the other side. “It [the pandemic] is a portal,” Arhundati Roy wrote in a ubiquitous-at-the-time essay from April 2020, “a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred and dead ideas …. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.” 

The apocalypse-as-ending fantasy looks forward to a world in which any violence is justified by the fear of one’s own end.

It’s that second kind of apocalypse that reviewers and readers saw in Station Eleven back in 2014. “Unlike most postapocalyptic works, it leaves us not fearful for the end of the world but appreciative of the grace of everyday existence,” wrote Anthony Domestico in The San Francisco Chronicle. The gracefulness of the novel begins with the type of apocalypse it imagines. Quick, and relatively painless, without fallout or flattened cities, the novel’s agent of the end is “the Georgia Flu.” It kills 99% of the people who contract it. Mandel describes it as “like a neutron bomb,” but the effect is much less disruptive. Within a few weeks, the world is simply emptied out. Think of it: there would be 80,000 people left in New York City. No one would ever have to stand in line again. Remember how the skies cleared two weeks into quarantine? Remember the animals dancing in the empty streets, and how we thought we caught a glimpse of the world freed from the pressure of our existence? #Wearethevirus started circulating in my leftwing Instagram feed. Indigenous activists pushed back: not all humans are equally responsible for the poisoning of earth. Who is this “We” you’re talking about?

In most fictional apocalypses, the survivors are the most competent, the smartest, the best prepared. In the real world it comes down to infrastructure, power, and urban planning. Take, for example, that neutron bomb Mandel mentions as a comparison for Station Eleven’s Georgia Flu. In the almost-apocalypse of the Cold War, Russian nuclear missiles were trained on American cities. As Dean MacCannell wrote back in 1984, that was one reason urban planners started building suburbs, and white people with the means started moving away. Black farmers, undermined by racist USDA policy, lost their farms, but the new suburban neighborhoods were closed to them. These new communities were often governed by tacit or explicit restrictions on race. As MacCannell puts it, “Every reflex is to keep the big city black.”

In most fictional apocalypses, the survivors are the most competent, the smartest, the best prepared.

In her book Infrastructures of Apocalypse, Jessica Hurley notes that at this same time, the federal government pulled funding from cities and spent instead on building more bombs. Cities started to crumble from within. Urban blight led to white flight until major cities such as Philadelphia were majority-Black in a country where Black Americans made up 12% of the population. Who else lived in cities in the 80s? Most Indigenous people, relocated to cities after U.S. “termination” policy ended land trust programs in the 1950s, mentally disabled folks kicked out of institutions the government wanted to close, trans people, immigrants, and queers. Futurelessness was a stark almost-reality: Historian Manning Marable writes that had Russia set off its nuclear bombs in 1984, more than 80% of Black Americans in the whole wide world would have been dead before the sound waves hit the suburbs. So much for luck. So much for being prepared.

“It’s a story where civilization collapses, but our humanity persists,” Mandel said about her novel. Shakespeare makes it. So do newspapers. So does classical music, a little bit of jazz, high-heeled shoes, corporate reports, celebrity gossip magazines, and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. The novel’s main cultural curators are both old white men. There’s Clark, a gay corporate consultant who curates “the Museum of Civilization at the Severn City Airport,” deciding which objects to preserve from the past. Then there’s Dieter, the senior actor in the Traveling Symphony, who claims the troupe only plays Shakespeare because “people want what’s best about the world.” Over and over again the novel tries to make white wealthy culture feel universal, with extended reveries about what humanity has lost: “almost everything, almost everyone.” Yet even those eulogies betray their singular perspective. “No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below … no more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup.” It’s a book that aims to speak to our shared humanity, but its perspective is only ever that of people who swim in backyard pools, who trust the cops, whose water flows lead-free through well-maintained municipal pipes. 

In the novel’s most explicit moments of erasure, the book’s two disabled characters quietly exit, each preferring to die rather than burden other survivors.

Everyone else’s culture is, more or less, erased. It’s not that queer, Black, Brown, and disabled people aren’t in this novel at all, it’s just that they’re either supporting the imperative of dominant culture’s survival or they’re neatly put back in their box. In one scene, we meet the novel’s only Black male character, a guy with cornrows whose wife has been shot. All we learn about this man is that he works in the fields of a Virginian plantation. Even Clark—the book’s one explicitly gay character—makes it all the way through the end times and into his museum only, apparently, to never have sex again. The novel is full of characters who are described with black skin or Arabic or Korean names, but as games studies scholar TreaAndrea Russworm has noted is common in post-apocalypses created by white folks, none of them seem aware of their own race. In the novel’s most explicit moments of erasure, the book’s two disabled characters quietly exit, each preferring to die rather than burden other survivors. It’s the classic bait and switch of white supremacy to tell us that on balance, losing everyone, losing everything else to apocalypse is a fair price to pay for what’s “best” about the world.

“What I was really interested in writing about was what’s the new culture and the new world that begins to emerge?” Mandel told NPR. But in this most graceful of apocalyptic tales, the new world we end up with is an unsullied reflection of the dominant culture of the old. Twenty years pass, newspapers re-emerge, and Clark collects a copy of the New Petoskey News. Sitting there in the museum with the first post-pandemic paper in his hands, he remembers the experience of sunrise seen from an airplane back when those existed: “there was a moment in the flight when the rising sunlight spread from east to west … and although of course he knew … that it was always night and always morning somewhere on earth, in those moments he’d harbored a secret pleasure in the thought that the world was waking up.” Not everything was lost, not everyone. As culture re-emerges after the pandemic, an old white guy gets to re-experience the glorious sensation of seeming to be at the center of the world.

How do we get to a future that is hard for us to imagine?

And yet, in spite of everything, marginalized people do survive. Plenty of viewers and readers dislike that fact when they encounter it in fiction. As a one-star review of HBO’s queerer, browner, blacker, adaptation of Station Eleven put it, “none of these characters seem like they would survive a pandemic.” And yet this strategy of persisting in spite of every form that genocide takes is an old one for people whose futures white cis patriarchal culture views as collateral. “There Are Black People in the Future,” read a billboard by Pittsburgh artist Alisha B. Wormsley, part of her project called Shaping the Past. The neighborhood around the billboard gentrified until finally developers had the phrase wiped out to make way for their new condo frontier. In the rest of Shaping the Past, “There are Black People in the Future” is printed on other objects: railroad spikes, crumpled Newport packs, tea cups, crosses, cassette tapes, and empty bags of sunflower seeds. In many ways Shaping the Past feels like a parallel project to the novel Station Eleven. Created around the same time, its collections of objects do some of the same things as Mandel’s lists of the lost comforts of a much-reduced white upper class. Wormsley, too, gestures towards both apocalypse and eulogy, but her phrase revives. There always have been, there always will be. There are real stories of escape, of care, of hiding, waiting, fighting, compromise, and grief behind this persistence, which that reviewer does not want to understand.

“It is a portal,” Arhundati Roy wrote in 2020. Since then, so much has changed. I don’t mean everything, and I don’t mean nearly enough. But I wanted to see what Station Eleven had to say for itself 8 years after its publication, after the election of Trump, Hurricane Maria, COVID-19, a flowering of mutual aid, so many dead, and the uprisings after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I wanted to see if the HBO series would still try to defend the book’s “realistic” apocalypse, in which nothing but whiteness is imagined to survive.

The HBO adaptation starts out with an essential worker walking off the job. A supermarket cashier in a Santa hat, tipped off about the virus by our hero Jeevan Chaudhury, walks right out the sliding doors and goes home. In many ways, the series Station Eleven is at the tip of what will certainly be a tidal wave of art to come out of the pandemic. It’s far from perfect, but right from the start, it’s filled with lessons learned. The moment I begin to build some trust in the series’ vision of the future, though, is when we meet the series’ August. In the book, August is a white, cis, violin-playing Trekkie poet. In the show, he’s played by Prince Amponsah—a Ghanaian-Canadian actor who lost both his forearms in a house fire in 2012. The sight of a Black, disabled actor living his life, using his arms, laughing with his chosen family, told me right away that this is an entirely different future than the one that the novel is able to imagine. 

Differences multiply from there, and while some of them might be chalked up to a greater appetite for diversity among HBO’s viewership, others deeply change the significance of the story. For starters, the novel’s central text, the comic book Station Eleven, is written by a Black woman—meaning that this version centers an artifact of Black art passing on into the future in this world. The Chaudhury brothers speak Hindi together. Their sibling family, two brothers, a lost sister, an impromptu white kid, parents missing or dead, offer an echo of the series’ later explorations of alternative family in the forms of a jerry-rigged maternity ward, a band of feral kids called the Undersea, and the queer as fuck Traveling Symphony, less of a wagon train now, and more of an arts loft party on wheels that rolls into town with a marching band playing Parliament on baritone horn. Tellingly, too, the Museum of Civilization is no longer a bastion of hope and memory. It’s a sinister, cloistered community led by an autocratic triumvirate of patriarch, matriarch, and cop. This is a fact that points to how the whole weight of the series has shifted—from a book about how art can bridge the rifts that crisis tears in time, repairing the white Western culture that it claims was our world’s “best,” to a series about the need for rupture, if we are to leave a murderous and fearful past behind. 

How do we get to a future that is hard for us to imagine? Changed as it is, the new Station Eleven doesn’t have any answers for that. It does have questions. At the end of the series, our new old, white autocratic Clark watches the Undersea leaving the Museum of Civilization, scattering across the fields beyond the Severn City Airport runway. Hundreds of children he never even knew were there. His question is, “What the fuck?” and it’s the last line he gets in the show. The most interesting thing about this moment is that we don’t know any better than Clark how to make sense of the Undersea. They’ve never been satisfactorily explained. What the fuck are these children? Are they sinister little terrorists? Where are they going? Where did they get those silly hats? Clark’s WTF directs our attention to everything we don’t understand about the needs, configurations, and solutions the future may find for itself. That’s the part I’m looking forward to, and here it is: everything I can’t yet know about how we will survive.

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