Review: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily st John Mandel
With Sea of Tranquility, Emily St John Mandel again returns to science fiction. And, like her successful first foray into genre, what she produced is thoughtful, beautiful and, though heavily reliant on trope, nevertheless still offers something worth reading.
I first encountered Mandel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, speaking about all the research she had done into pandemics for her book, Station Eleven. She wanted to tell a story about how humanity and community would adapt, how culture might continue to thrive like weeds through cracks in concrete. The prescient conceit – that of the pandemic – was almost a sidebar, and though the moments of panic buying in the book turned out to be true five years later, when COVID arrived, the heart of Station Eleven is life after collapse.
Sea of Tranquility takes us into collapse. But, much like Station Eleven, Mandel resists the temptation to partake in the fear of catastrophe, being more comfortable with unease.
It’s a story of people across space and time just trying to adapt, day by day, as the worlds around them fall apart. In this way, it resonates with our experiences of a global pandemic perhaps even more than Station Eleven.
The plot. Young Edwin St John St Andrew leaves Britain in 1912 for a new life in British Columbia. His political views have seen him all but banished from his homeland. His hope is to make something new of himself, but he instead indulges a sense of aimlessness, drifting from place to place as a ‘remittance man’. That is, until he experiences something in a Canadian forest that baffles him, but which the reader immediately recognises as some kind of time-echo.
We cut briefly to Mirella, central character in Mandel’s previous book, The Glass Hotel. Reading this book first isn’t necessary in terms of plot, but it is a sort of spiritual and thematic sibling and so I would advise doing so.
Next, we enter the life of novelist Olive Llewellyn, on global tour spruiking her successful pandemic novel as a deadly pandemic sweeps the planet. And wandering through each of these narratives is Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, who curiously has the same name as one of the characters in Llewellyn’s books.
Each of these characters is linked by a peculiar event in space–time. But they share something deeper in common. They are all on the precipice of some great collapse, and attempt to get on with life in the face of calamity. Like nesting dolls, the purview of these calamities expands with each story, starting with the very personal, in the case of Edwin, to the social, for Olive, and then to the collapse of reality itself in Gaspery-Jacques’ case. Structurally, it moves through these nested dolls in a way similar to Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, starting out in the past, moving through narratives into the future, then retracing its own steps back into the past.
But if this novel is a series of nesting dolls, it’s also some kind of mobius strip-like meta-narrative, deeply self-referential, another thing it has in common with If on a Winter's Night. A few examples demonstrate this point. There’s the 'St John' name, shared by Mandel and Edwin. Gaspery-Jacques is named after a character in one of Olive’s books, and Olive is of course a novelist modelled off Mandel herself. Olive completes a global tour to talk about an unexpectedly popular pandemic book, while an actual pandemic unravels. All this in a book written in the midst of an actual global pandemic.
As much as this is a book about time travel, it’s also rich in postmodern self-reference, troubling the line between the real and unreal—a blurring that was common for many of us during the worst of the lockdowns.
But the book is not perfect. Like Station Eleven, Sea of Tranquility relies heavily on tropes that will be recognisable to anyone who has read or watched enough sci fi, like paradoxes making time loops, and a secret agency responsible for repairing them. In that sense, it probably won’t hold any plot-based surprises. What Mandel brings to genre fiction is really her tone more than anything else. Sea of Tranquility is tonally similar to other books by Mandel, particularly Station Eleven and Last Night in Montreal, her first novel, in which central character Lilia travels from place to place to avoid facing her own, personally catastrophic narrative. In all, Mandel's writing is often simple, elegiac, and beautiful.
But in content and theme (and certainly not tone) it reminds me most of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, in which protagonist/author Charles Yu encounters a future version of himself, who attempts to give him a book entitled How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, written by his future self. He explains that his time machine:
features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.
In other words, his time machine is like a novel, and vice versa. Sea of Tranquility also leans on this element of time travel sci fi as a recursive metanarrative. I can’t help but imagine that, in a time when many of us were confined to our homes and trying to escape from stories in the news that filled us with fear, Mandel wrote this book as a vessel to escape to another place, another time. Somewhere, perhaps, more tranquil.