Book Review: In a dazzling sci-fi novel, sympathetic characters challenge their assumptions about human life and the passage of time | Books
“Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel; Alfred A. Knopf (272 pages, $25)
Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, “Sea of Tranquility,” is smart, lively, and entertaining. Hopefully it’s less prophetic than his previous work.
In 2014, the Canadian author published “Station Eleven”, a disturbing but inspiring novel (recently adapted by HBO) about the survivors of an unforgiving pandemic. Six years after this book came out – well, you know.
His latest, “Sea of Tranquility”, is a real jaw-dropper. Inspired by real-world evils and quirky philosophical theories, Mandel crafted a gripping narrative puzzle, immersing her relatable characters in a tale that spans five centuries.
The story begins in 1912, and Edwin St. John St. Andrew, a young Briton with a “double-holy name”, committed near-blasphemy, suggesting that England should not rule the world. . Sent by his aristocratic family, Edwin comes to rest on Vancouver Island. One day in the Canadian woods he is shrouded in “a flash of darkness, like sudden blindness or an eclipse.” He has the impression of having entered a “vast interior” – a train station, perhaps – and he hears a violin. It is a “supernatural” episode that he will never forget.
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In the next section of the book, Vincent Smith – a female character in Mandel’s 2020 novel “The Glass Hotel” – is a teenager in the 1990s when filming nature footage. Unbeknownst to him, she is standing where Edwin had his mysterious 1912 incident. In Vincent’s video of the still wooded area, we hear anomalous “overlapping sounds” – a train station and a violin.
The following chapters – each with their own bizarre occurrences – focus on a 23rd century author shuttling between her home on the moon and heavily polluted Earth; and 25th-century siblings working for a secret firm that investigates “times from different centuries” that seem to overlap.
Mandel alludes to global crises like climate breakdown and life-consuming technological devices, but she doesn’t offer us quite original ways to think about them. But it more than makes up for that shortcoming with a set of invigorating stories about virtual reality, time travel, and the essence of human life itself. The strange video that links Mandel’s stories across the centuries – is it evidence of “file corruption” in our “vast and terrible” virtual domain?
Readers who appreciate a certain quirkiness with their literary fiction are likely to delve into this deceptively poignant novel. In one scene, Mandel’s 23rd-century writer Olive packs smudges of “a mysterious plant” as she prepares to return home to the moon; it’s a gift for his daughter, who has never been to Earth.
Lest we think Mandel was an apocalyptic, consider his hopeful vision for the future of publishing. In 2203, Olive is on tour promoting a novel, signing copies of it for eager fans. Maybe Mandel is an optimist after all.