In Marienbad– the future fictional novel about the pandemic than the last work of Emily St. John Mandel sea of tranquility Turn around — author Olive Llewellyn expresses reluctance to name this world-changing event: “It’s hard to admit, but in those first few weeks we were vague about our fears because saying the word pandemic could tilt the pandemic towards us. »
It’s a strong sentiment that, in hindsight, seems horribly accurate for the Covid-19 pandemic. This may have been true for the 1918 flu as well. And history is clearly repeating itself in sea of tranquility, when a new pandemic in 2203 makes Olive’s Book the most undeniable lockdown read. This meta-narrative comes as no surprise, as Mandel’s meticulously researched 2014 pandemic novel station eleven came across as oddly prescient in Covid’s first year of 2020. The release of the stellar TV adaptation in 2021 likely only increased Mandel’s quasi-prophetic positioning within pop culture. So it stands to reason that the book she wrote at the start of the pandemic would be so introspective.
sea of tranquility is a story of retrospectives, forecasts, of the same moment superimposed like repeated musical notes and quotes that resonate through time. contrary to station eleven, this book could not have been written before our particular pandemic. But at the same time sea of tranquility both reflects our current crisis and revisits moments and characters from Mandel’s two previous books, it also demonstrates a creative leap for the author: it is the most explicitly science fiction of his works, exploring the journey into the time through a lunar colony in 2401. Despite this vanity running out in places, the prose never stutters.
Like Olive, it took Mandel about four novels before her audience really widened, in part because of the hopeful post-apocalyptic future she envisioned with station eleven. The glass hotel, its 2020 follow-up, ended up being an alternate universe taking on its predecessor, where the Georgian flu doesn’t kill 99% of the world’s population – where instead those victims’ lives end via a Ponzi scheme depriving them of their future, either in terms of lost fortunes or more than one suicide. Even though this book’s timeline diverges enough to obliterate the future of Year 20 and the Traveling Symphony, figures like Bernie Madoff-esque billionaire investor Jonathan Alkaitis and his trophy wife Vincent Smith ponder parallel lives based on different choices.
Although not as distinctly related to the previous two books, sea of tranquility is its own related repetition exercise. The thin volume recounts the same hyper-specific moment experienced by distinct people in 1912, 1994 and 2195: an airship terminal that echoes both the familiar strains of a violin and the distinctive futuristic style whoosh of one of these hovercraft taking off. For some observers, this is commonplace; for others, this tear in the fabric of time upsets entire worldviews. Decoding this moment propels the narrative forward, though Mandel’s penchant for nonlinear storytelling further structures the book as a series of linked character studies climbing forward and then back in time.
Clearly drawn from real life, sea of tranquility never feels too indulgent. Mandel once again demonstrates his knack for balancing an ensemble cast, with even the briefest of interludes making each character likable and memorable, like strangers met at a party even if they’re never seen again. This is particularly impressive given that the main players exist in different centuries, but their respective issues are relatable despite the differences in circumstances. As she returns to Caiette, the fictional Vancouver Island village where The glass hotel turns out, Mandel spends just as much time thoughtfully imagining humanity’s flight from Earth to the lunar colonies established in the title’s Sea of Tranquility.
Lunar colonies suffer slightly from uneven worldbuilding; Mandel lays down fascinating details about the socio-economic divide regarding who is literally growing on the dark side of the moon, but the colonies arrive so fully formed that their background seems incomplete. Aside from a mention of the Chinese president calling for the need to leave Earth as a proactive rather than reactive movement, it’s unclear whether the colonies are a global collaboration or competition. Along the same lines, there are frequent back and forths between them (such as Olive awkwardly visiting her parents on her book tour), but no potential cultural tensions are addressed. The lack of commentary on the colonization of the lunar landscape seems unbalanced for a novel written with such a deliberately palindromic structure.
But such imperfections can be improved in the next round. Where Mandel succeeds is in reminding us that even the most upsetting and seemingly unique moments will end up repeating themselves. No matter our fears in naming it, given enough time, there will always be another pandemic (the deadly disease that threatens Olive and her loved ones is an infant inoculation 200 years later). There will always be a young man sent into exile for pushing back against the status quo. There will always be inexplicable phenomena that will make us feel very small and perhaps not quite real. Readers may be divided on whether station eleven was too much to read at this point in the story, but sea of tranquility provides a strange comfort.
When Olive is trapped in her own lockdown, with hologram meetings calling for familiar Zoom fatigue for us readers, a conversation with a reporter helps her reflect on how “everything written this year was likely to be disturbed”. That may be true, but also what a treat to witness the inner workings of a famous author and especially that ambitious experimentation in a time when we were all bouncing off the walls – in this case, seeing what sticks.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, Den of Geek, Paste Magazine and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.