No star burns forever.
Emily St. John Mandel has always played with genre. The post-apocalyptic Station Eleven won accolades in both literary and SF circles, while Glass Hotel, a novel about a Ponzi Scheme, brushed against the edges of SF and Fantasy.
Some of Glass Hotel‘s characters reappear in her most recent novel, while the ghosts of Station Eleven haunt the book. It’s a time-travel story, set in pasts, presents, and futures.
Title: Sea of Tranquility
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
First published April 5, 2022.
A time-travelling detective from the twenty-fifth century attempts to resolve an anomaly that exists across several points between 1912 and his own future. The clues include the sound of an airship, a violin, footage taken by The Glass Hotel’s Vincent when she was an adolescent, and a pandemic-related novel beloved by the detective’s mother.
Not long after my sixtieth birthday I developed some heart trouble, the kind of thing that could have been easily fixed in my own century but was dangerous in this time and place, and I was transferred to the prison hospital. I couldn’t see the moon from my bed, so there was nothing for it now but to close my eyes and play old movies.
I’ve read four of Mandel’s six novels and, while I consider this one the weakest of those, her ability to address important and very human topics through her storytelling remains, I am happy to say, intact. We have a consideration of humanity, nature (which remains stunningly indifferent to our fate), technology (including the implications of the Simulation Hypothesis), and perception, wrapped in a tale that begins in the pre-World War One era and carries us into possible futures.
I had trouble with the Olive Llewellyn portions of the novel. In the real world, Mandel had the bizarre experience of writing her critically-acclaimed, best-selling breakthrough novel about a global pandemic, only to have a real-life pandemic hit as she toured in support of her subsequent novel. These exact things happen to Llewellyn, right down to questions about her approach to narrative, concerns about her husband and daughter back at home, and references that indicate Marienbad is basically a futuristic Station Eleven. Yes, it’s all very meta, but I’m not certain to what end. It reads more as lazy than clever, like she needed a character for that portion of the story and cribbed the notes from her real-life book tour. Except for the availability of space-travel and the fact that she lives in a “proof-of-concept” colony on the moon, little appears to have changed between our time and Llewellyn’s.
Originality: 3/6 Despite the inventive time-skipping, this may be Mandel’s least-inventive novel, filled with tropes that have been used in previous works about time-travel.
Story: 4/6 I don’t have a problem with the overall story: it features a curious opening and a strong finish which connects a beguiling number of disparate threads. Overall, it feels padded. Sea of Tranquility probably should have been a novella. I might have given it 5/6 and removed one mark from “Editing,” but her writing style remains stripped-down, stark, and strong.
Characterization: 5/6 Mandel remains an effective writer of character, though the people here feel less-defined than in her earlier work, more driven by the plot than driving it.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Editing: 5/6 Mandel has written a haunting, tense account of civilizations past, present, and future.
Overall Score: 4/6
In total, Sea of Tranquility receives 32/42