Welcome to the first in the “Same What If” series. These are posts that compare novels that have the same “What If” Scenario and compare the execution. First up in the series – Stephen King’s The Stand versus Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This post contains major spoilers for both books.
What If: The majority of the world’s population is wiped out by a deadly disease and the survivors must rise up against a greater evil that rises from the ashes.
The Stand starts in June 1980 (1990 in the uncut edition) when a weaponised strain of influenza is accidently released from a remote US Army base. As 99 percent of the world’s population dies, King focuses on a group of survivors who all have dreams of a 108-year-old woman called Abagail Freemantle. All the survivors begin to gravite to Nebraska where Abagail lives and find out how they’re all connected to fight a great evil that is brewing in Las Vagas, Nerada.
Station Eleven starts in the mid to late 2010’s when a Swine Flu epidemic wipes out most of the world’s population. Twenty years, a group of actors and musicians known as the travelling symphony find themselves coming up against an evil cult with a charismatic leader.
Time and place are incredibly important to the narratives of both The Stand and Station Eleven. Technology of the time are critical to the spreading of the disaster at the beginning of both books. I struggled with The Stand’s technology and pop culture references as the book is set 10 years before I was born. I didn’t feel such a strong connection to the touchstones of pop culture the same way I did with Station Eleven. I wonder if readers ten years from now will have this issue with Station Eleven. The pop culture references are supposed to tug at the heartstrings of readers to remind them that the world the characters live in is not so far from our own. It sometimes works, it sometime doesn’t. King is renowned for his propensity to overload his writing with pop culture references. It can be a bit distracting at times, especially since the references are now over thirty years old. Mandel uses pop culture sparingly however she flashes the story forward so the characters have less time to mull on these references whereas King’s story only spans a year.
The Stand and Station Eleven have large casts of characters that are all interconnected. The richness of the cast of characters is why both books are so excellent. It would be impossible to write about each of the characters so I will focus on the main cast who moves the story forward.
Station Eleven’s Cast
Arthur Leander is a successful film and theatre actor who dies the first night of the epidemic. He is the key connector to all the characters.
Kirsten Raymonde is a child actor from Toronto who witnesses Arthur Leander’s onstage death. Before he dies, he gives her a graphic novel called Station Eleven which is written by his first ex-wife. She is the main narrator when the book flashes forward twenty years. She is part of the travelling theatre troupe and is obsessed with Arthur Leander and the graphic novel he left her.
Tyler Leander is the son of Arthur and his second wife Elizabeth. Arthur gives him the only other copy of the Station Eleven graphic novel. He is stranded at Severn airport when the epidemic begins. He becomes the leader of a cult and is the main antagonist.
The Stand’s Cast
Abagail Freemantle known as Mother Abagail is a 108-year-old woman living in Nebraska. She appears to the survivors in dreams and urges them to go to Boulder, Colorado. She has visions from God and prophesises the final stand against Randall Flagg, the main evil of the story.
Randle Flagg known as the man in black is the main evil in the story. He is the evil across multiple of King’s novels. He is presented as an otherworldly demon who is never killed rather defeated. Like mother Abagail, he appears to survivors in dreams and attracts those who are drawn to destruction and power.
Stuart Redman is one of the first people exposed to the plague and survives. He becomes one of the key authority figures in the Boulder Free Zone where the ‘good’ survivors establish a settlement. He is one of four people who go to face Randall Flagg in Las Vegas. He is the ‘everyman’ character who the reader is supposed to identify with however he’s also the most black and white character of the cast.
Larry Underwood is a successful young singer who achieves fame with his debut single “Baby, Can you dig your man?” He falls into the wrong crowd in LA and moves back to New York with his mother just as the epidemic hits.
Nick Andros is a deaf-mute from Nebraska who survives the plague and has the most vivid dreams of Mother Abagail. He leads survivors to Mother Abagail and then becomes the leader of the free zone committee.
While both works explore the concept of good and evil in a post-apocalyptic setting The Stand explores it on a macro level with a large ‘good’ verses ‘evil’ battle while Station Eleven explores it on a micro level with more shades of grey and ambiguity.
King has a much larger cast of characters than Mandel however King’s work is much longer. King is known for his predilection for writing long meandering works sometimes to his disadvantage. As wonderful and powerful as the Stand is, it’s a long read that could have been made better with tighter editing. Mandel’s work on the other hand doesn’t meander too much into mysticism and cynicism the same way King does but it doesn’t have the same sense of grandness that The Stand has.
Ultimately, both works are fantastic explorations of good and evil and human nature.