Book Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Book Sea Of Tranquility standing up in front of a photograph of stacked rocks at sunset.

When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I read The Hot Zone, which traced the history of Ebola outbreaks, including one at a monkey house in the United States.  It hooked me.  For a time, I imagined myself becoming a scientist, traveling around the world, studying diseases.  And somewhere, in one of the multiverses, that’s what I did.  But in this universe, I went into history while retaining a fascination with reading about diseases and outbreaks and pandemics – real and fictional.  (There’s going to be a point to this, I promise.)

So a few years ago, when I heard about Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a story of survivors of a terrible flu pandemic, I started reading it and stayed up most of the night to finish it.  As soon as I saw her next book, The Glass Hotel, I grabbed that too (even though it wasn’t about a disease.  Well, there was a lot about capitalism and unchecked greed.  So maybe it was).  It took me a bit longer to connect with that one, but I enjoyed it and found the characters compelling. 

Sleeping dog with ear on the cover of Sea of Tranquility book
My dog decided she’d sleep for me

Then I picked up Sea of Tranquility a few days ago and once again I had to accept that I was going to miss my bedtime.  (One of the perks of being an adult is that I don’t have to tell my parents I’m scared of the dark and need the hall light on when I go to bed, so I can then crawl to the edge of the door and read that way.  I can just stay on the couch.)

I loved how her style of writing in the first few chapters moves quickly, with short, fast-flowing paragraphs written in third-person present tense. By the time it transitions into a more standard format, I was hooked. (In fact, as I was going back through the first few pages to re-experience it so I could try to capture what it was like, I almost fell right back in to re-reading the whole thing.)

We open with a young Englishman named Edwin sailing to Canada in 1912.  He has no plan, no idea of what he will do in Canada.  As the youngest son in a wealthy family, there’s no inheritance for him in England, but he gets his remittance, so there is no urgency for him to find an answer.  He lingers at the boarding house he first lands at until a new friend convinces him to go west with him, then, when farming doesn’t do it for him, he continues to Vancouver, until finally he finds himself on a small, wooded island (that seems familiar to those who’ve read The Glass Hotel).  While wandering through the woods, he experiences an inexplicable break in time that leaves him confused, disoriented, and very sick to his stomach. 

It is something other characters experience, in other times, including folks from The Glass Hotel, and Olive, a novelist from one of the moon colonies (located by the Sea of Tranquility), who is traveling Earth in 2203 as part of her book tour regarding her novel about a post-pandemic world, unknowingly just as Earth (and its lunar colonies) are on the brink of an actual pandemic. And then there’s Gaspery, a man who seems to be everywhere and everywhen, and constantly grappling with the question of what’s real and how we can know. 

I enjoyed the thematic similarities between this and To Paradise. There are loose connections from century to century.  There’s a great deal of flexibility with time and universes, particularly with versions of the folks we met in The Glass Hotel reappear here. I couldn’t tell you if this is supposed to be the exact same time and place, or if we’re in a slightly alternate reality, but it really doesn’t matter in terms of enjoying it.  If you haven’t read The Glass Hotel, don’t feel like you must before reading this one.  The story works even with no background knowledge.  But if you have, it’s a fun little reunion.  And once again, a pandemic is central to part of the tale, with Olive’s experiences elegantly calling back to the early days of the Covid shut down. The earlier chapters also all take place just a few years before a pandemic will sweep the globe (the 1918 influenza for Edwin, Covid-19 for Miranda and our near-present-day characters).

Like Plato’s Cave, Sea of Tranquility prods us to question what we see and experience around us.  Or as we phrase it these days, are we all simply existing in a simulation?  Should we all periodically be whispering “Computer, end program,” to make sure we aren’t stuck in some sort of holodeck malfunction in a Star Trek: TNG episode?  What if we start finding evidence we are in a simulation?  How would (or should?) it change how we live? 

As Olive’s world shrinks to a couple of rooms, she continues to give her lectures on why postapocalyptic literature is so popular, now through whatever the future’s version of Zoom may be. And her theory resonated with me:

My point is, there’s always something.  I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story.  It’s a kind of narcissism.  We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now, is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.

And yet, we continue on.  As dark and as hopeless as things may seem, there is still time for us to find a new way, to grapple with our unknowns, to find solace and comfort in one another, to pull the drowning out of the water.

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