“Sea of Tranquility,” Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, demanded that I read it all in one day. There are few things more exhilarating (to me, at least) than tearing through a book because it’s just that good. Nothing quite compares to getting to the end of a book and feeling compelled to read the “Acknowledgements” section and even the information about the typeface (Sabon, if anyone was wondering) just so the book isn’t over, not quite yet. Luckily, this is not a book that ends when you read the last word on the last page, because it sticks with you and refuses to let you go.
“Sea of Tranquility” follows several characters whose lives intersect for a brief moment — a sort of “glitch” that brings a displaced Englishman, renowned author, videographer, violinist and time traveler together. The novel spans from the early 20th century to the late 25th century, jumping from our Englishman, Edwin, in 1912, to time traveler, Gaspery, in 2401. The worlds Mandel describes are alien in more ways than one: Edwin lives in a pre-WWI Vancouver Island while Olive, the 23rd-century author character, lives in an equally unfathomable future where moon colonies populate the lunar surface. Mandel dives straight into a complex web of timelines that reveal themselves over the course of the book, and does it in a way that feels utterly natural. Any time-hopping disorientation reads as purposeful.
Time travel and the glitch it creates in this novel provide possible evidence that life is a simulation, supporting the so-called “simulation hypothesis.” The trouble with exploring the possibility of living in a simulation is the ease with which you can fall into a kind of helpless nihilism — if the world isn’t real, then none of this matters. Mandel sums up the way her novel deals with this question fairly succinctly towards the end: “If definitive proof emerges that we’re living in a simulation the correct response to that news will always be So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.” The characters in “Sea of Tranquility” live and die and love and mourn, they ponder and care, they think beautiful and mundane things. The 225 pages you, the reader, just read are also a simulation of sorts, a world Mandel created. So you are left to wonder: does that make the feelings you experienced while reading it any less real?
Mandel, I suspect, would say no. Time, space and even the possibility of nothing being real don’t stop these characters from caring for each other, and they don’t stop the reader from caring for them. As our main time-traveling character Gaspery would certainly agree, differences in time and space don’t mean there are differences in humanity — not really. The videographer from 2020 and the author from 2203 and the videographer’s sister from 1994 and the Englishman from 1912 — they’re all distinctly believable, lifelike, compelling, human. While spanning centuries, Mandel manages to maintain a certain innate humanity that links her characters together despite their vast differences.
Another wildly impressive aspect of this novel is that it is a pandemic book — a book that explicitly references pandemics, COVID-19, lockdowns and the all-encompassing loneliness of the virtual world — all without sounding cringey, overwrought or too on-the-nose. Deep into a lockdown for a SARS pandemic occurring two centuries past COVID-19, Olive reminisces about the people she has lost — but not loved ones, just the random people, the ones she met in passing. She mourns for those peripheral and seemingly insignificant people we see at bars or restaurants or walking down the street, offering a brief glimpse into another, totally unknown life and then just as quickly fading away. “Where was the driver who was writing the book about the talking rats?” she wonders. “Where was the driver who sang an old jazz song as they drove through Tallinn, and the woman in Buenos Aires with the tattoo?”
“Sea of Tranquility” also captures that “end-of-the-world” feeling — the one with a voracious appetite that the pandemic feeds easily — and the paradoxical desire and excitement that comes along with it. That feeling when you stare into an abyss and wonder what would happen if it swallowed you up. Maybe, as Mandel writes, “in a world that seems fundamentally unfair, perhaps we long to just blow everything up and start over.” Or maybe, “we believe on some level that if the world were to end and be remade, if some unthinkable catastrophe were to occur, then perhaps we might be remade too, perhaps into better, more heroic, more honorable people.” Mandel acknowledges and dismisses this desire for destruction all at once. “We want to believe that we’re uniquely important,” she writes, “that we’re 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.” The world of “Sea of Tranquility” clearly continues, as this speech comes 200 years before our time traveler lives.
But just like her answer to the possibility of life being a simulation — So what — Mandel addresses the still-existent inevitability of an ending in a similar matter-of-fact manner. A mantra — “No star burns forever” — is a vein that flows through the entire story, calmly asserting the fundamental temporality of the world in which the characters and readers live. “Sea of Tranquility” is mind-bending without being confusing and somber without being sad. It is true to life, yet hopeful. For a book about time travel and moon colonies, it feels an awful lot like reality.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.