‘Sea of Tranquility’ Review: No One Does Speculative Fiction Like Emily St. John Mandel

In 2014, Emily St. John Mandel published her fourth novel, Station Eleven. It went on to be the kind of breakout critical and commercial hit that transforms a writer’s life. A story about the survivors of a fictional flu pandemic, it gained new relevancy in 2020—the word “prescient” got tossed around a lot—and the next year, HBO Max released a lush, acclaimed limited series adaptation. Mandel’s moody follow-up novel, The Glass Hotel, wasn’t quite as zeitgeist-ensnaring as Station Eleven, but it was still a warmly received best seller. (Another HBO Max show is in the works.) With so much recent success, any new Mandel work faces high expectations. It’d be understandable if she hoped readers might push past triumphs out of their minds when appraising her next offering. Instead, though, Mandel asks for the opposite: Sea of Tranquility, her latest novel, is a discursive tale looped directly atop its predecessors, cutting them up and rearranging the pieces into a trippy, wistful story. If Mandel were a musician, it would be an album made from sampling earlier songs. The past isn’t just prologue, it’s the present and future, too.

Sea of Tranquility opens on a would-be British colonizer named Edwin St. John St. Andrew as he arrives in Canada in 1912. He wants to redefine himself in a faraway land, but it’s a seemingly pointless trip. He makes it all the way to the western edge of the country, but he gets spooked when he meets a stranger named Gaspary Roberts in the woods near a remote settlement on northern Vancouver Island, and he returns back home. 

Gaspary, it turns out, is a time traveler from the year 2401. He’s investigating a cosmic anomaly—a rupture in space and time, or a “file corruption,” as his physicist sister Zoey explains it—which may offer evidence that the universe is a simulation. In an attempt to understand how this anomaly occurred and what it might mean, Gaspary visits a number of people involved throughout time, including Edwin, as well as a socialite named Mirella Kessler in the year 2020. Mirella will be familiar to anyone who has read The Glass Hotel. Mandel is fond of cross-pollinating her stories with the same characters, and Mirella had a supporting role in the earlier novel as protagonist Vincent’s best friend. Vincent, who disappears and is presumed dead at the end of The Glass Hotel, is still presumed dead on the timeline of Sea of Tranquility, but after meeting Mirella, Gaspary travels through time to see Vincent at different stages of her life. Vincent, who was raised near the same stretch of forest in British Columbia that Edwin St. John St. Andrew briefly visited, captured the anomaly on film while walking through the woods with a camcorder, so Gaspary is interested in what she saw and why she saw it.

Gaspary also time-travels to interview a moon-dwelling writer in 2203 named Olive Llewellyn. He meets her on the latter end of a marathon book tour on Earth; after writing a runaway success novel about a fictional flu pandemic, she is now wildly popular. Olive’s life will sound familiar to Mandel fans too. She is a pointed, deliberate stand-in for the author, so much so that she may as well have flat-out called her “Emily St. John Mandel.” Even details of their lives are the same, like the number of books published before the big breakout. A wry riff about chickens that Olive hears on her tour, as Mandel notes in her acknowledgments section, is paraphrased from something someone actually said to her at a literary conference. 

Perhaps Mandel changed the name because she did something that almost nobody writing realistic autofiction does: She made her stand-in the story’s most readily sympathetic character, an earnest artist who genuinely respects her fans, loves her family, and who has generous patience for stupid questions. (As a sweeping generalization, most protagonists in autofiction are at least half dirtbag. Olive is maybe 1 percent dirtbag.) 

Hers is a charmed life, with the biggest problem for most of the book being that she misses her husband and child but likes being on tour. Olive’s interactions with Gaspary end up altering the fabric of reality—but they also work out pretty well for her. This is a witty move on Mandel’s part. Writing her stand-in as such a through-and-through sweetheart practically commands readers to squint at Mandel’s storytelling intentions. Is she simply trying to immortalize a fictional version of herself as a nice person? If so, is there anything wrong with that? Is it a silly reason to tell a story? Well, what’s the point of storytelling, anyway, if nothing’s really real? What’s the point of doing anything?

Speculative fiction often uses the future to decode the present. Here, Mandel folds the past into the mix, as well, creating a speculative universe where each plotline’s ending doubles as a trapdoor back to another plotline’s middle. And this mix of old and new doesn’t stop with her funky timeline. Although Sea of Tranquility is set largely in the future and adorned with sci-fi flourishes, it raises old questions about how we can make meaning. “Human beings have been wondering if their world was real for as long as they’ve been dreaming,” my colleague Jason Kehe recently wrote in an essay about simulation theory. Kehe argues that several recent books touching on simulation theory “make the case not only that one can live meaningfully in a simulated world, but that one should.”

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