Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility
Sea of Tranquility
(Knopf Doubleday, 2022)
The Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis) is a lunar mare that sits in the Tranquillitatis basin on the moon. It’s the first off-world place ever visited by human beings. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left footprints there. It’s also the location of the first moon colony in Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel. The colony became necessary, we learn, because “Earth was so crowded by then, and such swaths of it had been rendered uninhabitable by flooding or heat.” But before we get to the moon colonies (there are three), we’re first introduced to Edwin St. Andrew, a “remittance man” (younger son without an inheritance) who is traveling in 1912 across the Atlantic from England to Canada.
Edwin is directionless but with money, so he spends time in Halifax watching ships come in and trying to figure out what to do with his life. Eventually, he goes west with a family friend Reginald, who bought a farm outside Prince Albert. Once there, Edwin is overwhelmed by the emptiness, the “horrifically featureless horizon” and the “sea of mud” that surrounds the farmhouse. After spending some time drinking, Edwin leaves the farm for British Columbia. Ending up in Caiette on Vancouver Island, Edwin is confronted by “the unfathomable wilderness, dark towering trees crowding around the periphery.” Directionless as ever, Edwin walks into the forest, where he has a very strange experience: sudden darkness then a mix of sounds—a violin, a hum of people as if he’s in a train station, and a whooshing noise. He staggers out of the forest, convinced he’s going mad. But then, our first signal that all is not what it seems, Edwin meets a strange man, “Roberts,” who claims to be a priest but who then disappears without trace leaving Edwin shaken and confused.
The story shifts forward in time to 2020, where Mirella is at a sound/video performance by Paul Smith, her friend Vincent’s half-brother. Vincent was Mirella’s best friend in The Glass Hotel (Mandel’s previous novel) but Mirella abandoned their friendship. Mirella is hoping to find Vincent, but Paul tells her that Vincent’s missing at sea. During his performance, Paul shows a strange video his sister shot in the woods near Caiette. There seems to be a glitch in the footage that echoes Edwin’s strange experience in the forest: violin music, a crowded station, and a whooshing noise. After Paul’s performance, a stranger—Gaspery-Jacques Roberts—meets up with them, begins asking questions about the video, and we realize that something very strange is happening. Later, Mirella recognizes the man from her childhood, but he hasn’t aged.
Next we meet Olive Llewellyn, a young successful writer in the midst of a book tour on Earth in 2203. The world is different: “The sky was crowded with low-altitude airships,” she’s visiting “the Atlantic Republic,” she lives in the second moon colony with her husband Dion and daughter Sylvie, and construction has just begun on the “first of the Far Colonies.” There are parallels between Olive and Mandel—her book is about a fictional pandemic (like Station Eleven) and was written prior to a global pandemic (like Station Eleven). And it’s hard not to feel uneasy for Olive and her world when a journalist says, “for all we know… there’s a universe where your book is real.” One of Olive’s last interviews is with a reporter named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts who has a tattoo which reads, “We knew it was coming.” Both his name and the tattoo appear in her novel, which, of course, is impossible.
The novel shifts to 2401 and the moon colonies, where Gaspery-Jacques lives in Colony 2, known as “the Night City” as the lights have failed. He grows up near Olive’s house and his mother has named him after “a peripheral character” in Marienbad, her most famous book.
(As an aside, while the book’s title is never explained, I found myself thinking about Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad—the non-linear narrative, the stranger who tries to convince a woman they’ve met before, and the slippery nature of narrative and interpretation).
In the Night City, Gaspery-Jacques is working for a local hotel as a detective, hired by his childhood neighbor Talia. But one night, Gaspery-Jacques’s sister Zoey calls him to her office at the mysterious Time Institute to watch some video footage: Vincent’s film shown during Paul Smith’s performance. Zoey also identifies a passage in Marienbad where Olive has written the same strange moment. Zoey and Gaspery-Jacques decide to investigate the glitch, a glitch that could possibly be evidence of “file corruption” and the suspicion that they are all “living in a simulation.” Though Zoey is opposed to the idea without being specific as to why, Gaspery-Jacques joins the Time Institute and after intense training, travels through time to meet with each of the three: the violinist (Alan Sami), Olive, and Edwin. Gaspery-Jacques is told that Olive will die from the pandemic three days after he interviews her, but that he cannot tell her. And so, of course, he breaks the rules and tells Olive to go home immediately.
In 2203, Olive rushes back to the moon colony and her family. Here Mandel writes our own pandemic: the panic, the lockdown, the constant sirens, technology exhaustion, the shifting and rethinking of personal and career priorities. There are beautiful moments in this section between Olive and her young daughter that are some of the most compelling in the book and this is part of what makes Mandel such a masterful writer—the ability to bring our attention back to the importance of human intimacy, the small moments between individuals that make life bearable or even beautiful in the face of pandemic. For Olive, “This is the strange lesson of living in a pandemic: life can be tranquil in the face of death.” Olive has started to sneak outside at night to the small garden at the base of her building. While there, she sees Gaspery-Jacques appear and then Zoey. Here Olive learns what she has already suspected—Gaspery-Jacques is a time traveler.
Although Gaspery-Jacques is punished for breaking the Time Institute’s rules, all is not lost (time being relative) and in the final chapters of the book, secrets are revealed, things come together, and “reality” breaks. Our anxieties may not be relieved by the end of the novel, but there are no dropped threads and Gaspery-Jacques, through his many efforts, has shifted paths for the disparate mix of people whose lives were changed when they walked into the forest (or the terminal) one day.
A beautifully written, equal parts vast and intimate, quiet and thrilling contemplation on humanity, physics, time, and what it means to be alive.