Writing a book for mainstream publication is always an act of time travel. Given the gap between when a book is “finished” and when it actually appears in bookstores and libraries, the world in which you write the book is never quite the same world the book will be released into. As you write, you exist in the present and have access to the past, but the reader exists only in the future. By the time they read your words, your present will have become the past. There’s no telling what havoc that shift will wreak.
In the past several years, this slippage has become especially noticeable in books about worldwide pandemics, for obvious reasons. Books like Lauren Beukes’s Afterland, written before the COVID-19 pandemic began but released right into its midst, were jarring to read in the summer of 2020, with lines like “Disneyland. Summer vacation 2020… Did they pick it up right there? On the fingerprint reader, which she’s never seen wiped down?” Too timely for some readers, not timely enough for others, pandemic-themed novels now occupy an uncomfortable, uncanny space.
But Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven was an exception. A breakthrough success when it was published, selling 1.5 million copies by March 2020 (per a New York Magazine profile on Mandel), it continued to sell well during the pandemic. When its TV adaptation premiered on HBOMax in December 2021, viewers and critics embraced the series. Written about an imagined future, Station Eleven ended up closely approximating the future that was to come, providing something readers needed in what is now our present: an answer to the question, What happens after the end of the world as we know it?
Mandel’s new novel Sea of Tranquility, while its summary makes it sound more wide-ranging than Station Eleven, is actually far more focused. Station Eleven dipped into multiple characters’ points of view, following both the pandemic’s outbreak and the recovering world several decades on, and Mandel’s writing fully inhabited every character, immersing us in their particular angle on the stricken world. Sea of Tranquility keeps the multifaceted narration style, passing with ease between voices, but narrows the focus to a simpler question: What happened?
The opening chapters of Sea of Tranquility hop merrily through time, introducing us to a main character in each of three timelines. In 1912, Edwin St. John St. Andrew sails for Canada, attempting to reinvent himself as a gentleman farmer in the New World. In 2020, Mirella Kessler watches a composer’s performance that incorporates a video taken by her one-time friend Vincent, and in the process finds out that Vincent has, unknown to her, died since their estrangement. In 2203, an author named Olive Llewellyn, who grew up in a moon colony, returns to Earth on a book tour promoting her pandemic-themed novel Marienbad just as a pandemic on Earth is beginning to spread. In each of the three timelines there’s an odd anomaly, a moment of disruptive convergence. Then, in a fourth timeline, in 2401, an investigation into the anomaly that links the previous three timelines begins. What happened is the question that the characters from the 25th-century timeline, along with the reader, will work the rest of the book to answer.
As always, Mandel fans will find much to love in this novel. Her writing is spare and intelligent, poetic without being overwrought. The character Mirella in the 2020 timeline reappears from Mandel’s 2020 book The Glass Hotel, along with brief appearances from Vincent Smith and her brother Paul, that book’s main characters. The answer that the book provides is simple and satisfying, no tricks, just the right information revealed at the right time.
It’s that solution, though, that casts the rest of the book in a different light in retrospect. The multiplicity of narratives in Station Eleven delivered a clear message in aggregate: everyone matters. In The Glass Hotel, too, the overlapping perspectives of multiple narrators provided depth to the story of a Ponzi scheme—its ripple effects, the thought processes of its perpetrators, accomplices, victims, bystanders. In that book, too, everyone mattered. But once you’ve finished Sea of Tranquility, several of the characters whose intimate thoughts we’ve shared are rendered largely irrelevant: their perspectives are important to the plot, but not the story. The character of Olive Llewellyn in particular seems to lack much dimension, mostly reflecting on the repetitiveness of book tour travel, conveying facts about historical pandemics, and listening to readers’ compliments and complaints about her wildly successful pandemic-themed novel that one could easily imagine Mandel has heard from readers about her own wildly successful pandemic-themed novel. (“’I was so confused by your book,’ a woman in Dallas said. ‘There were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t, ultimately.’”)
Sea of Tranquility is an escape room of a book: a whodunnit, in a way, with one clear right answer. In that way, despite its plotlines about time travel, moon colonies, and airship terminals, it feels like a throwback to Mandel’s earlier work. It’s a simpler book, a neater book, than the two that preceded it. Written in Mandel’s past and ours, intertwining imagined past, present and future timelines, it somehow bears us deeper into the past and not the future. Time travel, after all, works in both directions.
Sea of Tranquility
By Emily St. John Mandel
Published April 05, 2022
Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).