Emily St John Mandel came to prominence with her fourth book, the pandemic post-apocalypse Station Eleven. That book gained a second wind when the Covid pandemic hit, and was turned into an HBO series. Some of the craziness of that success, and of the pandemic itself, is captured in St John Mandel’s latest book Sea of Tranquility. Her latest book not only provides some autobiographical elements and directly references Station Eleven but draws on characters and incidents from her last book The Glass Hotel. All of this within a science fiction tale that deals with some philosophical standards.
Sea of Tranquility starts in 1912 and follows the trail of dissolute Englishman Edwin St John St Andrew who has been essentially exiled by his family to Canada. After he has a strange encounter in a forest in the north of Vancouver Island the narrative jumps forward to 2020 to focus on Mirella, a character from The Glass Hotel, trying to track down Paul, the brother of Vincent, the main character of that book (although no knowledge of that book is required to enjoy this one). Mirella also has a meeting with a strange man who she feels she has seen before when she was a child. The narrative then jumps forward twice more – to 2203 and a book tour of an author who more than passingly resembles Mandel herself and then 2401 and the revelation that time travel is a thing, before winding back through all of those previous episodes from a different perspective.
While Mandel hypothecates colonies on the moon and further out and time travel is essential to the plot this is very light science fiction. Mandel is not concerned about the detail, or the way things work or of imagining anything too far-fetched. This is particularly the case with the 2203 book tour which, besides a few airships and long distance calls to the moon, could just has easily also have been set in 2020. And the fact that this book tour is about a popular pandemic novel and is occurring as another SARS pandemic is emerging makes this section feel extremely personal and current (and puts this novel firmly in the realm of the current wave of “literary” COVID novels which have included Louise Erdritch’s The Sentence, Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat and Sarah Moss’s The Fell).
There is a philosophical element to Sea of Tranquility. The question of whether we are all living in a giant simulation a la The Matrix. The crux of the plot is a plan to send someone back in time to investigate an “anomaly” that might prove or disprove this theory (although what the consequences might be of either outcome are never really clear). Time travel as a concept is tricky – Mandel imagines a civilisation that has invented time travel but who also know it is possible to actually alter the time line. However, the consequences of timeline alteration are also not in any way explored or how the time bureaucracy even know that the time line has been changed once it has happened.
Putting these bigger philosophical questions aside though, Sea of Tranquility has a more personal, human concern. At its heart it is about finding the silence, or a place to reflect in amongst the chaos of life, or as the narrator concludes “being a still point in the ceaseless rush”. So that overall, while Sea of Tranquility pitches itself as a partly futuristic time travel story, it is most effective when it is reflecting on our current situation and condition.