Review of Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Sea of Tranquility
by Emily St. John Mandel
Time travel always opens up such interesting storytelling possibilities, loops and predestination paradoxes among them. We humans are so immured in the linearity of time that these possibilities can be tantalizing, frightening, and even bewildering. Add on top of that metafiction, the idea of a story escaping itself into the real world, and you get some truly fascinating plot ideas. Sea of Tranquility tries to create such an atmosphere of possibility. Though I wouldn’t say that Emily St. John Mandel entirely succeeds in this endeavour, I still respect the big swing and enjoyed the experience.
We start in 1912 with Edwin St. John St. Andrew, eighteen years old and newly exiled by his English family to Canada. He ends up on Vancouver Island, where he witnesses something strange in the forest—he hears violin music, and for a moment appears to be in a strange place, before the forest returns. This event unites him with a woman in an airship terminal in the 2090s, and an investigator on a colony on the Moon centuries later still. Is reality slipping? What’s going on?
Like so much about time travel, this book feels at times very sad. Knowing the future can be a burden—but so too can knowing the past. Gaspery knows how Edwin and Olive each died, for example. And eventually he puts together his own fate thanks to working out the paradox at which he is the centre. He seems resigned rather than resentful of this turn of events. If our future is fixed, are we better off not knowing it? If we learn it, like Gaspery does, what can we do about it? I think it’s so fascinating that Gaspery desperately wants to change the fates of others yet ultimately embraces his own.
Yet, as Vonnegut reflected in Slaughterhouse-Five, experiencing time out of order means that your loved ones are never really dead either. That’s the case of Gaspery and Zoey, for example. Having the privilege of stepping out of time only to step back in a moment later from one person’s perspective but days, months, years from yours—with no more effort, apparently, than leaving and reentering the room—that’s intriguing.
Although the title is partially a reference to one of the book’s settings, I also see it as a thematic nod. Each of these characters have something in common (beyond witnessing the anomaly)—they’re just living their lives. They aren’t engaged in any venture more significant than simply going about their everyday life, and there is value in that. I think this is Mandel’s jam, if I recall correctly from Station Eleven, a book I enjoyed but don’t really care to revisit (or watch as a TV series) having gone through a pandemic of my own.
Perhaps this is why Mandel, like many other Canadian science-fiction authors like Margaret Atwood, has successfully broken into the mainstream and received the coveted “speculative fiction” label. This is a book about straight-up time travel, but if you read the description or see where it gets shelved (though my library, rightly, put it under science fiction) you’ll see the attempt to litwash it. I’m not complaining, mind you—I am all for sneaking more science fiction into the mainstream, and the success of properties from Westworld to Marvel movies suggests that people have never been more receptive to it. But I think it’s important to point out, whenever I see it, the double standard, the way that some novels are treated as literature and others as pulp even to do this day based mostly on vibes and marketing.
As for the plot? Eh. Mandel warns us fairly early in the book, foreshadows it even, by having a character talk about reading a novel which was really a series of stories where the characters don’t quite meet up. I thought a lot of Cloud Atlas when I was reading this. To be fair to Sea of Tranquility, there is a larger plot chugging along in the background, a tantalizing philosophical question hanging over our characters like a Sword of Damocles. But the resolution to that question belies its importance, in fact, to any of the characters. It’s not really about the question or even about the journey. There are whispers of a cabal, implications of shadowy figures manipulating events from afar. None of this is ever reified, however, in any truly fulfilling way. That might be for the best—this would be a very different book if such things had been more prominent—but it also leaves the novel feeling more shallow than I expected. It feels almost like it could have been a novella for the amount of ideas happening on the page.
Fortunately, I still enjoyed the experience of reading the book. Mandel’s writing is as meditative as it was six years ago. I’m glad I went on this little science-fictional adventure!