Sea of Tranquility

By: Emily St. John Mandel

Warning: Spoiler alert for Station Eleven

Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal—an experience that shocks him to his core. 

Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him. 

When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a ship cook who vanished under mysterious circumstances. 

Intellectually playful and artfully cyclical, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the profound impact a single decision can have on the lives of others. 

My review for this novel will be more about theories I have regarding the story itself than a criticism of the writing of the story, mostly because the writing was excellent and I don’t have much to criticize. If you are unfamiliar with the story of Station Eleven, I would encourage you to read my book review on it or, better yet, watch my video on it linked here:

My theory will likely evolve after I read Mandel’s other story The Glass Hotel but here it goes. I believe the character Olive is a self-insert, far-future version of Emily St. John Mandel. Olive writes a book that gets published immediately before a pandemic about a pandemic that just so happens to have a prophet that is integral to the plot. The people of this universe know the book as Marienbad. We of course know it as Station Eleven. What confirmed this for me was this comment made to Olive:

“I wanted to ask Olive about the death of the prophet in Marienbad…It could have been a much bigger moment, but you decided to make it a relatively small, not climactic event.”

Call me crazy but I know that line had to be a criticism of how Mandel handled the prophet’s death in Station Eleven because I felt the same thing when I read it. With the understanding, after I got over the initial shock, that the point wasn’t to make the death of the prophet some dramatic closer but rather show that in that universe, people died horribly and violently all the time so what was one more person? When this comment is made to Olive in the story, she is on her book tour where people criticize her work openly right to her face in a constant barrage. I can only imagine people saying that same thing to Mandel on her book tour and it having enough impact that it made it into a future story. It made me feel horrible for her because, for some reason, fans will say things with little to no regard for an artist’s feelings. 

In my video about reading Station Eleven after Covid, I mention how shocked Mandel must have felt to write a book about a population-destroying virus right before our lockdowns. Well, guess what virus gets a brief mention in this story published in 2022? 

Smallpox. Obviously. What were you thinking?

Also yes, COVID-19. COVID is canon in Mandel’s universe now.

On a completely separate non-pandemic-related note, I enjoyed the time travel in this book and how it related to the Simulation Theory. One of the characters goes back in time to investigate an anomaly that they think could prove once and for all that humanity is living in a simulation. The framing of the danger of time travel is great as well because it stems less from messing up the present timeline so much as the fear of the bureaucracy and consequences of altering the timeline of the Time Institute. The Time Institute is the only government-sanctioned lab where time travel can be performed and they ruin people who mess with time in unregulated ways. 

That might make it sound like the Time Institute is the “big bad” of this story but they’re not. At least not in my opinion. The grandness of this story stems less from conflict and more from the unfolding interconnectedness of different people’s lives across time and space. I would even argue that Gaspery (our main protagonist) isn’t really even a hero. He is to a couple people but not in the grand scheme of history. His actions, much like the death of the prophet in Station Eleven, are understated and minor yet so important. It shows how life is this crazy amalgamation of small decisions that everyday people make. What seems substantial to one person could easily be brushed off by another. It’s a reminder that drama and climax are really from the perspective of the viewer rather than the author. 

With that said, I wanted so badly for this book to be longer. I saw the end rapidly approaching and couldn’t believe I only had 255 pages to explore this story and I knew not everything could be completely resolved. There was still a mystery I wanted to unravel that didn’t take up any significant part of the plot. A woman named Vincent went missing and that was all we heard about it, so I was a little miffed when the story ended…until I realized something. Mandel had another book that was released before Sea of Tranquility. It is called The Glass Hotel and that story is about, you guessed it, Vincent. 

The fact that all the books were related when this whole time I thought they were stand-alone stories blew my mind so much that I had to immediately race to the library to get The Glass Hotel. I rarely ever read books in the same universe/series back to back but each of her books is so completely different that I don’t feel like it’s just going from one plot to the next but rather that it will be a whole new experience. I’m excited to go on this journey and to have more of this universe to read. It makes me wonder if she will write any other stories set in this same universe and if so who would it be about. Maybe Gaspery’s sister Talia so we can explore more about her job at the Time Institute. That would be so cool! Be back soon to talk about The Glass Hotel!

Overall rating: 4.5

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