Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel


Dan Crute reviews Sea Of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (Pan Macmillan)

Thematically, Sea of Tranquility is a fairly standard time travel mystery, offering three distinct timelines, linked by a fourth. In 1912, eighteen-year-old Edwin St. John. St. Andrew crosses the Atlantic to the new world, adrift and uncertain of much at all. In 2020, Mirella Kessler mourns her friend Vincent Alkatis Smith (both of these characters also appear in Mandel’s earlier novel The Glass House) and tries to make sense of the circumstances around her death. In 2203, Olive Lewellyn wrestles with literary success and absentee parenting, and in 2401, Gaspery Roberts finds his calling in life: he joins the Time Institute and becomes a ‘traveller’, tying all four stories together. Excluding Gaspery, the protagonists have all experienced an anomaly, though they’ve convinced themselves it was either a hallucination or a religious experience. In fact, it’s a corruption of the timeline, where one moment and another, centuries apart, happen simultaneously, and Gaspery is the detective sent back in time to find out if, and why, it really happened. Put as baldly as that, the tale sounds simple enough, but time-travel stories are rarely simple. Rather than complicating the story as many other time-bending tales do, Mandel uses the format to bring her character’s ostensibly disparate lives closer to each other’s, highlighting similarities over differences and showing us a humanity unchanged by technology or the passage of time. We are human, she seems to say, nothing can change that.

Stylistically, Mandel’s writing is soothingly easy to ingest; she’s kind to her reader. The prose is calm and unrushed. Clear and yet possessed of a sympathetic tendency to muse. Her characters’ lives are lived internally as much as externally, just as our own are. Through this musing, she (and they) are able to explore large concepts and ideas without falling to long-winded philosophical tracts or having to delve too deeply into the science behind the fiction. It keeps the narrative moving and creates an inclusive, human-centric style of sci-fi, one that may introduce those who wouldn’t ordinarily stray too close to the SF & Fantasy shelves, to the almost endless possibilities of the genre gently, with no fuss or lasers. Gaspery demonstrates this especially well when considering the ramifications of simulation theory, one of the book’s underlying concepts, ‘if definitive proof emerges that we’re living in a simulation, the correct response to that news will be So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.’ (p. 246).

In a sense, this open-ended contemplation and her by-the-way style of information smuggling, defines Mandel’s work. Her world building occurs so unobtrusively that I often found myself skipping back to reread sections that describe aspects of the world(s) in conversational asides, as if you were an inhabitant who would already know about them. Intergalactic flight and moon-based colonies, a time-machine run by a shadowy government agency, the idea that we’re still in danger from viruses, even in a future packed with new technologies, driverless cars that know where you’re going, and a great deal more besides, bleed into the readers consciousness through dialogue and reaction. A personal favourite example was the passing mention of Texas as an independent country, a popular notion in the lone star state even now. Mandel’s world(s) grow on the page around the action. It’s restrained, unassuming writing that retains a potent ability to delight, challenge, and wrongfoot a reader.

The dialogue itself floats from the character’s mouths like the very best movie lines do; believably, but too well structured, paced, and delivered for real life. The kind of speech that doesn’t exactly feel written, but those speaking do possess an unnaturally good sense of phrasing, and this dovetails well with simulation theory. If those speaking are pre-programmed constructs’, then they might well sound just like that. Of course, it also gives Mandel the chance to flex her writerly muscles and sing on the page, as most of her poetry and music is smuggled in through everyday language, again, often without the reader even noticing.

In some ways, Sea of Tranquility builds on, or adds to, the achievements of its predecessors The Glass House* and Station Eleven**. For example, Station Eleven ‘broke’ Mandel onto international bestseller lists everywhere; she became famous almost overnight and Sea of Tranquility is, in part at least, a response to that double-edged experience. I tend to distrust personally reflective narratives, as often they’re not much more than an artist’s self-obsession given free reign. One way it can work however, is if the experience being related is outside of most audience’s and is therefore used to open a window onto a world, or an aspect of one, they might reasonably be expected not to have knowledge of. In the 2203 timeline, Mandel pulls this off with understated aplomb.

Olive (a clear avatar for the author), is a newly successful writer of a pandemic-focussed novel. She’s away from her husband and new daughter, on tour promoting a rerelease to coincide with the opening of a film adaptation. As she journeys from town to town missing her family but also guiltily enjoying her success, an actual pandemic begins, exactly as it did in real life with Covid-19. While the rest of us worried about containment, both Mandel and Olive knew from research that, ‘a virus is either contained or it isn’t. It’s a binary condition.’ (p. 77). And, as in 2020, being a new parent throws the horror of this knowledge into sharp relief. Olive’s musings slam home into any parent who has to work away from family, and/or who remembers navigating those months of fearful decision making, ‘This is the lesson of living in a pandemic: life can be tranquil in the face of death.’ (p.195).

The 2203 passages also allow Mandel to quite knowingly break the ‘fourth wall’ and speak to her process as a writer. Again, this doesn’t come off as self-aggrandising or self-interested, merely honest and, perhaps bravely, opens up the story to reader critique, while also addressing past criticisms of Station Eleven. The biggest of these is approached directly early on, when an audience member asks Olive to comment on their vague sense of Marienbad (the fictional version of Station Eleven), ‘There were all these strands […] all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t ultimately. The book just ended. I was like [?]’ (p. 71). The described speaker’s final shrug is the same I’ve received from some whom I had gifted the book to. It’s an understandable sentiment, given that Station Eleven does simply stop, without any grand conclusion and without tying up loose ends. Personally, I didn’t mind this at all because it read as an honest reflection of how humans cope with disaster (we simply carry on living as best we can) but many did. In Sea of Tranquility however, Mandel heads off this issue by making sure to resolve her timelines and character arcs very neatly indeed. Apart from dry technical details, nothing is left unexplained. While this is very satisfying and done with skill enough to avoid cliché, I missed Station Eleven’s open-ended extrapolatory denouement. After closing that book, I dreamt of what might happen next, but when I closed Sea of Tranquility, the story was over. This would be a criticism, except that while I had no dreams of the story’s continuation, the mirror it raises, and the image we see in it, does still linger, and that’s what good sci-fi is supposed to do. Marcel Theroux, writing in The Guardian, puts it very well:

‘Sea of Tranquility reminds us that humanity’s resting state is crisis. Someone’s world is always ending: that is the keynote of this book. And the echoes and callbacks that give it its shape reflect the ways we make our own lives meaningful.’***

I had been awaiting this book’s release with the kind of excited fan-fervour usually reserved for teenage vampire sequels, so when it arrived in print just last year, I was aware this anticipation might cloud my acuity but, judging by the generally positive critical response, it seems not. 4.1 stars on, 4.3 on, etcetera. And those that disagree, such as The Telegraph (2 stars), seem to do so on the same points: they disliked the vagueness of its message and its fragmentary structure, the very things that enamoured myself and millions of other readers to it in the first place. You can’t please everyone.

Robert Heinlein, in his 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction, defines the genre as stories based on the questions ‘“Just suppose –” or “What would happen if –”’ and goes on to state that, ‘The story is not about the new situation; it is about coping with the problems arising [from it]’. Mandel’s fiction thoroughly embodies this delineation.

To end, I will dispense with any remaining reticence born of an attempt at professional detachment and admit that for me, Sea of Tranquility was well worth the wait.

I remain a fan.

* Mandel Emily St. John, The Glass House (Picador, 2020)
** Mandel Emily St. John, Station Eleven (Picador, 2014)
*** Theroux Marcel, The Guardian (UK: 20 April 2022)

Dan Crute is a scribbler, waffler, circus monkey, ageing strength disciple, and occasionally, a comic book artist. He’s just completed the Creative Writing BA at Birkbeck. He lives in London, where you can find him either hunched over a keyboard trying to make sense of his own writing, lifting something unnecessarily heavy, or hanging out with his seven-year-old son. Makes a damn fine cup of coffee too. @danielalexcrute  

17 November 2023