Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, and Its Reviews

This is what would be called a “literary science fiction” novel in that it’s clearly SF yet is written by a writer with a “literary” background rather than one in the SF genre, and so whose approach would be expected to vary from the interests of genre science fiction writers and readers. Mandel (the St. John is a middle name) came to prominence a few years ago with STATION ELEVEN (2014), which I haven’t read but which I gather was about the aftermath of a worldwide plague (it won an Arthur C. Clarke Award); after that came THE GLASS HOTEL (2020), which seemed to have such a slight genre element that haven’t even bought a copy. (Too many books…)

SEA OF TRANQUILITY is about time travel and the idea that the universe might be a simulation, focusing on a situation the author calls an “anomaly” and which is likened to a “file corruption” (as if the simulation is run on some huge computer). The “anomaly” manifests via various people in different times and places (including the Moon) who experience a momentary connection. That’s the boiled down technical summary.

Or, SEA OF TRANQUILITY is about a young man, exiled from his family in Britain, who comes to British Columbia in 1912 and experiences something strange near a huge maple tree. A momentary disorientation, a crashing sound… then it’s over. And it’s about a composer in 2020 who uses a video recording of his sister’s, which shows looking up into a maple tree… when something strange happens. And it’s about a writer, Olive Llewellyn, on a book tour in a 2203, a future with colonies on the moon, having written a novel about a worldwide plague… just as a new plague is breaking out. The parallels to the author, Mandel (who conceived the book in 2020), are obvious, and Mandel gets in some sardonic observations about the trials of book tours. And most centrally the novel is about one Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a listless lunar colonist who gets a job as a hotel detective before learning about the existence of a Time Institute. As in many traditional SF stories since at least the 1950s, this Time Institute, given the existence of time travel, is dedicated to the task of preserving the existing timeline, going into the past as necessary to fix things that somehow went wrong. And the “anomaly” would seem to be one of those.

(Why British Columbia, Ohio, the Moon? I can’t tell.)

The novel got two reviews in Locus Magazine earlier this year, both reviews posted on its site, which may be consulted for further plot details, and the takes of the book by reviewers Gary K. Wolfe and Ian Mond.

This is a quick blog post so I’ll just bullet-point my own reactions and comments.

• Mandel’s prose is crystalline, almost minimalist. It’s a shortish book, 250 pages, but with quite a few short little chapters of less than a page. At one point the author’s stand-in Olive talks about her next project, “this crazy sci-fi thing” that might be a novel or a novella.
• The science fiction elements are all very superficial. Facial recognition is still an issue, in 2203; the moon colony is a huge dome over streets of homes with grass yards and trees; bedroom windows there have shutters. Residents worry about property values. The time travel assumes that one can move to any place, as well as any time.
• The most striking SF naivete is as Olive returns to the Moon from her book tour on Earth. Page 176: “Then the landing, so gentle after that hurtling speed between Earth and moon.” Bumpy ride?

There are some intriguing ideas that are not followed up on.

• In particular, the idea that people have always believed the world was ending; they have a desire to believe they’re living in the climax of the world. (From my reading, this seems to be a psychological truth.)
• And then the idea (this is around p187-190) that perhaps it *is* always the end of the world: a continuous and never-ending process. As if all of time were overlapping somehow. But this idea is never developed.

(Spoilers follow)

At the same time, the book’s resolution does nothing to deflect the idea that the universe *is* a simulation, or else this kind of anomaly could not have happened.

So bottom line is that a paradox, an “anomaly,” is introduced when the same person, under different guises and without close supervision, appears at the same place twice. That’s it. That creates the anomaly.

Science fictionally, it’s weak tea. As a literary work – considering the prose, the characters, the way the theme is developed through them – it’s perfectly fine. As are lots of genre science fiction novels.

Which brings me to my final point, my curiosity, after finishing the book, about how it was reviewed. For decades, literary reviewers have considered books by literary writers that deal in science fictional themes or tropes (examples from Vonnegut to Pynchon to Updike to McEwan to Ishiguro comes immediately to mind) as not *really* being science fiction, but *really* about something loftier and more literary. Merely *using* science fiction tropes as gimmicks, or cultural icons.

So. Both Gary K. Wolfe and Ian Mond, who reviewed the book in Locus earlier this year, talk mostly about the reflexive aspects of this work with Mandel’s two previous books, and about writing a book about a pandemic while one is underway, and about a writer who goes on book tours writing about a writer who is on a book tour.

Then here is the end of Gary’s review, referring to THE GLASS HOTEL:

That novel wasn’t really about Ponzi schemes, though, any more than Sea of Tranquility is about time travel or simulated universes. Taken together, the novels outline an intriguing tapestry exploring the interaction of history and identity, linked across several centuries. Taken individually (and Sea of Tranquility doesn’t require that you’ve read The Glass Hotel), each is a compelling and very readable examination of complex characters trying to make sense of their worlds, their pasts, and their dreams. Mandel may seem a bit more comfortable in the relatively familiar Canada of 1912 than in those remote futures, but her characters never fail to fascinate, and her prose can be absolutely pristine.


I also tracked down the New York Times Book Review review of the book, by Laird Hunt: A Dazzling New Foray into Speculative Fiction From Emily St. John Mandel.

Subtitle: In “Station Eleven,” she explored fallout from a pandemic. Now, in “Sea of Tranquility,” Mandel takes up existential questions of time and being.

The reviewer never says “science fiction” (except for “sci-fi” in the quote below) though he does say “speculative fiction.” Again, this novel isn’t really about time travel, unlike several genre works he mentions.

But Mandel is interested in something other than limning the highs and lows of timeline trotting and figuring out what to do … Mandel’s novel has more in common with tech-minimized sci-fi outings like Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.”


Because no “science fiction” writer of time travel stories ever considered “complex characters trying to make sense of their world”?


But I’m not complaining – I’ve observing. In a sense these reviews are right. No one will pick up this novel because they are looking for a science fiction novel. Time travel, and science fiction in general, have become so en-cultured that their ideas can be freely used by any writer without elaborate explanation.

Yet I feel dismay for the implication in some of these reviews that no writer of time travel stories has ever been concerned with “complex characters trying to make sense of their worlds” (Wolfe) or characters who “are all trying, with varying degrees of success, to catch hold of what keeps eluding them” (Hunt).

UP THE LINE, anyone? BEHOLD THE MAN, anyone?


I’m willing to rethink this. Comments welcome.

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