Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf 978-0-593321447, $25.00, 272pp, hc) April 2022.

One of the central characters in Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility is a novelist known for a bestseller about a worldwide pandemic, published just a few years before an actual pandemic makes it a bestseller all over again, with a blockbuster film adaptation in the works. Not surprisingly, she’s on a world­wide book tour to promote a new tie-in edition. If that sounds a lot like the story of Mandel’s own Station Eleven, her 2014 Clarke winner (which also showed up on TV late last year), it’s prob­ably no coincidence, and Mandel gets in a few sharp satirical jabs about the frustrations of liter­ary fame and book tours. But Olive Llewellyn, Mandel’s novelist, lives on the Moon in the 23rd century, and her chapters are rather waggishly titled ‘‘Last Book Tour on Earth’’. With all that’s been lost in Mandel’s depleted future, the idea that the international bookstore signing tour (or even bookstores) might survive until 2203 seems almost quixotic, but it’s not the only odd relic of our age; she even imagines that university tenure might still be a thing in 2401 (it’s barely hang­ing on now). These are minor details, but they reveal something about how Mandel constructs her futures: overcrowding and climate crises on Earth, extensive colonies on the Moon, the outer solar system, and eventually the ‘‘Far Colonies’’, but with characters whose anxieties, ambitions, and jobs sound weirdly contemporary. It’s hardly a radically estranged future, and Mandel shows relatively little interest in working out too many details of the space colonies or the transformed Earth.

That oddly familiar 23rd century is only one of four disparate time periods linked together in the novel, which follows the recent trend of leapfrog­ging historical, contemporary, and future settings (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas may remain the most famous example, although Matt Bell’s Appleseed appeared just last year). The novel begins in 1912, when a young English aristocrat named Edwin St. Andres, having impertinently suggested to his family that the subjects of the British empire might not enjoy their lot and that William the Conqueror was a bit of a thug, finds himself exiled to Canada, where he eventually makes his way to the tiny village of Caiette in Vancouver. In 2020, Mirella Kessler attends a concert by a composer named Paul Smith, whom she’s tracked down in an effort to reconnect with her former best friend Vincent, Paul’s sister (who grew up in that same Caiette), only to learn that she had died or at least disappeared years earlier. In 2203 we meet that author on book tour, while in 2401 a former hotel security guard named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts finds himself a new job at the Time Institute, whose mission will look familiar to anyone acquainted with Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories, Asimov’s The End of Eternity, or even Marvel’s Loki TV series: namely, protecting the historical timeline to guarantee its own survival.

What unites these characters is an apparent timeline glitch experienced as a momentary vi­sion by Edwin in 1912, by Vincent several decades later, and by Olive in 2200, and which Gaspery is assigned to investigate. It may be evidence, ac­cording to his sister Zoey, that our entire universe is a computer simulation, of which the anomaly is simply a ‘‘file corruption.’’ As with much of her other SF machinery, Mandel doesn’t explore the idea in much philosophical detail (I have no idea if, for example, she’s read Nick Bostrom’s famous 2003 paper, ‘‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’’), but that isn’t really what she’s after. (Fictional characters are pretty much by definition living in a simulated universe.) Read­ers of Mandel’s excellent The Glass Hotel will recognize not only the remote setting of Caiette, but the characters of Mirella, Paul, and Vincent, who in that novel was married to a Madoff-style investor whose empire unraveled in an enormous Ponzi scheme, wiping out the fortune of Mirella’s husband and driving him to suicide (all of which is briefly recounted in the present novel). 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.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.

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