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'Sea of Tranquility' reflects our pandemic woes through a time-travel lens

Sea of Tranquility
Knopf

In Marienbad -- the fictional future pandemic novel that Emily St. John Mandel's latest work Sea of Tranquility revolves aroundauthor Olive Llewellyn articulates the reluctance to name this world-changing event: "This is difficult to admit, but in those early weeks we were vague about our fears because saying the word pandemic might bend the pandemic toward us."

It's a keen sentiment that in hindsight seems horribly accurate for the Covid-19 pandemic. It may well have been true, too, of the flu in 1918. And clearly history repeats itself in Sea of Tranquility, when a new pandemic in 2203 makes Olive's book the most unputdownable 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 the first year of Covid in 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 during the early stages of the pandemic would be so self-reflective.

Sea of Tranquility is a tale of retrospects, of foresights, of the same moment layered on top of itself like repeated musical notes and of quotes that echo across time. Unlike Station Eleven, this book could not have been written before our particular pandemic. But while Sea of Tranquility both reflects our current crisis and revisits moments and characters from Mandel's preceding two books, it also demonstrates a creative leap for the author: It's the most explicitly science-fictional of her works, exploring time travel by way of a lunar colony in 2401. Despite this conceit wearing thin in parts, the prose never stutters.

Like Olive, it took Mandel about four novels before her audience really expanded, due in part to the hopeful, art-forward, post-apocalyptic future she envisioned with Station Eleven. The Glass Hotel, her 2020 follow-up, wound up being an alternate universe take on its predecessor, where the Georgia Flu doesn't kill 99 percent of the world's population — where instead these victims' lives end via a Ponzi scheme robbing them of their futures, either in terms of lost fortunes or more than one suicide. Even as that book's timeline diverges enough to erase the future of Year 20 and the Traveling Symphony, characters like the Bernie Madoff-esque billionaire investor Jonathan Alkaitis and his trophy wife Vincent Smith ponder parallel lives based on making different choices.

Though not as distinctly tied to the prior two books, Sea of Tranquility is its own related exercise in repetition. The slim volume recounts the same hyper-specific moment experienced by separate people in 1912, 1994, and 2195: an airship terminal within which echoes both the familiar strains of a violin and the distinctively futuristic whoosh of one of those hovercraft taking off. To some of the observers, it is banal; for others, this rip in the fabric of time upends entire worldviews. Decoding this moment propels the narrative, though Mandel's penchant for nonlinear storytelling structures the book more as a series of linked character studies climbing forward and then backwards in time.

Clearly drawn from real life, Sea of Tranquility never feels too self-indulgent. Mandel demonstrates yet again her talent for balancing an ensemble cast, with even the briefest of interludes making each character sympathetic and memorable, like strangers encountered at a party even if never seen again. This is especially impressive considering the main players exist in separate centuries, yet their respective troubles are relatable despite the differences in circumstance. While she returns to Caiette, the fictional village on Vancouver Island where The Glass Hotel is located, Mandel spends just as much time thoughtfully imagining humanity's escape from Earth to the moon colonies established in the Sea of Tranquility of the title.

The lunar colonies do suffer slightly from some spotty worldbuilding; Mandel establishes fascinating details about the socioeconomic divide concerning who grows up on literally the dark side of the moon, yet the colonies arrive so fully formed that their background feels incomplete. Aside from a mention of the Chinese president calling for the need to leave Earth as a proactive instead of reactive move, it is unclear whether the colonies are a global collaboration or competition. On a similar note, there is frequent travel back and forth between them (like Olive awkwardly visiting her parents on her book tour) yet any potential cultural tensions are not addressed. The absence of commentary on colonizing the lunar landscape seems unbalanced for a novel written with such a deliberately palindromic structure.

But such imperfections can be improved upon in the next go-round. Where Mandel succeeds is in reminding us that even the most life-changing, seemingly unique moments will eventually repeat themselves. No matter our fears in naming it, given enough time, there will always be a new pandemic (the deadly disease that threatens Olive and her kin is a childhood 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 make us feel very small and perhaps not-quite-real. Readers may be split on whether Station Eleven was too much to read during this point in history, but Sea of Tranquility provides a strange comfort.

When Olive is trapped in her own lockdown, with hologram meetings calling forth familiar Zoom fatigue for us readers, a conversation with a journalist helps her reflect on how "anything written this year was likely to be deranged." That may be true, but also what a treat to witness the inner workings of a celebrated author and especially this ambitious experimentation during a period in which 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.

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