Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Source of book: We own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Last year, we read Mandel’s other pandemic book, Station Eleven, which I mostly liked, although it had its flaws. I found this one to be kind of meh, with some good moments, but not really memorable. 


This book too is science fiction, with multiple plot threads - although the non-linear plot pattern makes sense considering the book is about time travel. This book is also really short (the book itself looks bigger, but there is a LOT of white space.) Because of this, it felt like it sort of nibbled at ideas, but never really made a meal of them. A taste of time-travel-paradox here, a crumb of “is the universe just a simulation?” there. A little taste of possible moon colonies, even less of a Europa colony, a glimpse of mechanized agriculture, and so on. But nothing is ever really digested. I guess I could say it felt kind of like a science fiction version of a “cozy mystery?” Just enough to make you feel like it isn’t total fluff, but no real substance once you get beyond that? 


At least Station Eleven had a fairly well thought out idea: that culture - Shakespeare and classical music - were kept alive in roving bands of players, kind of like in the Middle Ages with the traveling shows. 


Speaking of that, it was a real bizarre and false note in the world of the book that within a couple hundred years, nobody knows about Shakespeare. Seriously. You have regular flights between the moon and the earth, but nobody learns Shakespeare anymore? The reason this is particularly silly is that since the infrastructure of information still exists, clearly, anyone can learn about Shakespeare on the 24th Century interwebs. So why would he just disappear from the public consciousness? Even Homer survived the Dark Ages when most books literally disintegrated from neglect. I cannot fathom a world where everyone suddenly decides to stop caring about the great literature of the past. I mean, if she wrote a totalitarian world where knowledge was destroyed, that would make sense. But in this book, it seems that nothing of that sort happened. It’s a really bizarre idea, and should have been explained. Particularly since in that other book of hers, she seems to understand that in a post-apocalyptic world, the mysterious and great things of the past would likely be the stuff that would resonate the most. Now, it does make sense that people of centuries future will have no idea how Kid Rock ever had a career…


So, the plot centers on a series of “anomalies” in the time continuum. At certain times and places, people experience this break with reality and hear a violin playing in an airship hanger. This starts with a younger son of an Edwardian aristocratic British family, who has been exiled to Canada. He experiences this soon before meeting a priest who seems….a bit off. Later in the 2200s, an author on tour before a Covid-like disease decimates the earth and moon recalls a similar incident in her childhood, and puts it in a book. A girl in our own time is playing with a video and captures the anomaly. Later, her brother makes it into an artwork. And so on. 


The farthest in the future, time travel has been perfected, and one of the main characters is tasked with going back and investigating this anomaly. Which leads to issues, and a kind of weird conclusion to the book. 


If this sounds a bit disjointed, it is. It fits together, but with plenty of seams showing. Plus, I got the end, and didn’t really feel like the story ever drew me in. It was okay, but it wasn’t like Station Eleven in the sense of being memorable. 


There were some interesting moments. It was at least darkly amusing the idea that the US has broken up into several states. (I think this has a high chance of happening in my lifetime, actually.) And I think Mandel (a Canadian, by the way) is pretty accurate in her description of the Republic of Texas. (From when the author is on her book tour.) 


In the Republic of Texas the next afternoon, she wanted to go for a walk again, because on the map, her hotel - a La Quinta that face another La Quinta, a parking lot between them - was just across the road from a cluster of restaurants and shops, but what the map didn’t show was that the road was an eight-lane expressway with no crosswalk and constant traffic, mostly modern hovercraft but also the occasional definitely retro wheeled pickup truck…


There is also a pointed observation when the time-traveling Gaspery is being briefed about traveling back to 2203. 


“November 2203. Early days of the SARS Twelve pandemic. Don’t worry, you won’t get sick.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It was one of our childhood immunizations.” 


This is pretty accurate. I would say the overwhelming majority of people in our time have zero idea what diphtheria is or what it was like. It is one of our childhood immunizations, so we don’t tend to even think about it. But it used to kill hundreds of thousands a year, mostly children, even notables like one of Queen Victoria’s (adult) daughter. Unfortunately, the way things are going right now, it seems as if we are heading into an age of vaccine denialism - overwhelmingly on the Right - and thus a resurgence of preventable disease. (I am old enough to remember when anti-vaxx was mostly a hippie leftist movement, but thanks to Trump, it is now a mainstream right-wing litmus test for ideological purity.) 


One thing our book club did find delightful was the time-traveling cat. We are pretty much a club of cat lovers (although a few like my wife mostly tolerate them), so cat characters always get a bit of love. In this case, a time traveler decided to stay where he was, so he removed his tracking/homing device and fed it to a cat. Who then returned to the future. “Your cat’s from 1985.”


I also liked a conversation about apocalyptic thinking. There is an extended sequence where snippets of lectures given by Olive (the author in the book) are quoted. She asks the question of “when have we ever believed that the world wasn’t ending?” Throughout history, parents have felt guilt about bringing children into a broken world. I think Olive makes a fascinating observation, one that has been borne out by my own experience - particularly the “we are living in the end times” garbage that my parents’ and grandparents’ generation made into an entire industrial complex. 


“[T]here’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 were 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.”


Related: Frank Kermode wrote an entire book on this phenomenon, this weird narcissism that plagues us humans, where we believe that our own extinction as a person - our death - must somehow be a synecdoche for the universe as a whole. This was definitely a great moment in the book. Except…it really had little to do with anything else in the book. It was there, and then the plot moves on, and it never is really revisited. I think it should have been, honestly. Like so many other moments, it could have been used as a recurring theme. 


So, I guess, this book feels like it never ended up going anywhere, or really saying anything. It was a story, and then it ended, and it kind of filled some time, but never really moved me. Which was disappointing considering I did enjoy Station Eleven.



  1. As usual, a well written and thought provoking essay. Excellent.
    I disagree with the ultimate conclusion because I am particularly susceptible to time travel stories and the author's ability to draw me in to her imagined worlds. I'm not sure if you know that the book overlaps some characters and events from The Glass Hotel, her penultimate book. Reading both has a synergistic effect on the enjoyment of the books, at least for me.

    1. I realized that there was sort-of a first book in The Glass Hotel after I read it. I should probably go back and find that one. :)