TRAVERSE CITY — Paul Dechow likes science fiction but didn’t read the post-apocalyptic bestseller “Station Eleven.”
So when he saw that the Emily St. John Mandel novel about survivors of a devastating pandemic was coming to TV, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“At first I thought, ‘pandemic,’ it’s kind of a groan,” said Dechow, of Maple City. “But this show is not really a show about a pandemic.
“This is really a character-driven sort of show. If you like a show about people and you like to see what they do and how they develop, this is the show you watch. If you want flashy science fiction, this is not what you’d watch.”
The HBO Max limited series began streaming Dec. 16, followed by two new episodes each week. New viewers still have time to catch up before the finale drops Jan. 13.
Like the book, the series follows survivors of a deadly flu as they attempt to “rebuild and reimagine a world anew” while holding on to the best of what has been lost.
It stars Mackenzie Davis as Kirsten, an actress who has come of age in a post-pandemic America and Himesh Patel as Jeevan, a paparazzo turned paramedic.
The show has gained fans from viewers to critics for its universal themes of connection, love, loss and art — survival is insufficient, declares one character’s tattoo — and for its surprisingly hopeful tone.
Now the series, which Dechow calls “premise-based fiction,” is his favorite thing to stream.
“It’s good enough that it’s my show of the moment,” said the professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, who watches the episodes as they’re released. “If they’d put the whole thing on at once I probably would have binge-watched.”
Filming began in January 2020, just as the coronavirus began to turn the world on its ear, and was then postponed for a year before picking back up in February 2021.
The action begins in the early stages of the fictional pandemic then jumps ahead to “Year 20” as members of a theater troupe called the Traveling Symphony circle Lake Michigan to bring Shakespeare plays and concertos from settlement to settlement.
The 2014 book, which has sold upwards of 1.5 million copies, was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the most prestigious award for science fiction in Britain.
In Michigan, it was selected by the Michigan Humanities Council as the 2015-16 Great Michigan Read.
Area readers were especially intrigued by its regional settings, including Traverse City and “New” Petoskey.
Mandel, who is originally from Canada, has said she fell in love with northern Michigan when she first visited it for a book tour and long thought about setting one of her works in the region.
“She’s still a friend of the store,” said Caitlin Marsh, director of digital marketing and events for Brilliant Books, where Mandel appeared at release parties for “Station Eleven” in 2014 and other books in 2012 and 2009.
“She occasionally mentions us in articles she writes and this store is a favorite stop for her. We occasionally see her when she’s on vacation.”
Marsh said the novel has been a staff favorite “for ages” and was the store’s top book of the decade when the business celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017. While she calls herself a “sucker for a plague book,” she has yet to read it herself — and won’t watch the TV series until she does.
“I think personally that reading a book and seeing a screen adaption are very different experiences,” she said, adding that the book has been on her reading list even before she began working at the bookstore five years ago.
“I’m almost afraid to read it now because so many people love it,” she said. “I’m afraid if I don’t love it so much that I will be judged by my colleagues.”
Mandel has been effusive in her praise for the HBO Max adaptation, saying that despite some different plot elements that make sense given film’s different dramatic requirements, the series is “absolutely true to the spirit of the book.”
Amy Barritt loved the book for a variety of reasons including the way it “ties disparate people together and shows how their lives intersected.”
The Kingsley Branch Library manager said the novel was a “surprisingly easy sell” during the Great Michigan Read, when the main Traverse Area District Library used a grant to host several related events. They included a theater performance of what the Traveling Symphony would have done in the book, from telling of news in the world to reenacting parts of Shakespeare plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and “King Lear.”
Barritt said she still recommends the book to people who say they don’t like science fiction.
“It was the variety of characters, the variety of experiences, that the author didn’t get bogged down in a whole lot of description but focused on developing her characters,” she said.
Now she plans to watch the TV series, one way or another.
“This is a world I’d be interested in seeing come to life,” she said. “I could probably sucker a friend who has HBO into watching it with me.”
Newbies can go to YouTube to watch an HBO Max series trailer and “The Beginner’s Guide to Station Eleven,” which features scenes from the show along with cast and crew interviews.
“At first I thought, ‘pandemic,’ it’s kind of a groan. But this show is not really a show about a pandemic.” Paul Dechow, Maple City resident