Emily St. John Mandel, the acclaimed author of “Station Eleven” and “The Glass Hotel,” likes to jump chronologically through her novels. She takes that conceit to the bitter end in ‘Sea of Tranquility,’ a time travel thriller in which a secret 23rd century organization tries to solve a disturbing anomaly that spans 400 years along the time continuum. .
In 2403, time travel was discovered, and quickly banned, and is now under the tight control of the Time Institute, which constantly scans the past for intruders (facial recognition software is a help ). After all, as one character notes, “What is time travel if not a security issue?”
There’s a Texas Republic, which makes sense, and an Atlantic Republic, which is more surprising. The skies above Central Park are “crowded with low-flying airships,” and Earth’s three lunar colonies have man-made rivers for the sanity of residents. (“Sea of Tranquility” takes its title from the “sea” on the moon near where Apollo 11 landed.) Additionally, “holographic reunions had once been hailed as the way of the future. .but the unreality was painfully flat”. Yes, the future has people complaining about Zoom meetings.
The first moment we land is a lumber camp on Vancouver Island in 1912, before the Great War. Edwin St. Andrew is a layman, “exiled” from England for his passion. He is precocious, aimless and homeless. One day, he gazes at the branches of an ancient maple tree and has the eerie, unearthly sensation of being in a vast space, closely followed by the appearance of a strange priest, someone who will appear in different timelines and various appearances throughout.
Mirella is a woman in New York in early 2020, trying to find her friend, Vincent. (Readers of “The Glass Hotel” might recognize these two characters.) In search of a lead, she witnesses a pretentious performance by Vincent’s half-brother Paul – a man “famous in an extremely limited and niche” – with a video of a brief and puzzling event in a Canadian forest. Incidentally, she meets someone who anticipates something that will happen in about a month, and someone Vincent swears she recognizes from childhood.
Gaspery is the not-so-brilliant brother of scientist Zoey, who is doing something big and secret for the Time Institute. After years of training in history, culture and accents, the Institute sends him, a rather unlikely, sometimes “distressingly incompetent” investigator, to discern why different people in different places in time and space encounter the same bizarre experience. .
Gaspard, well-meaning but decidedly not brilliant (he never masters accents) is an interesting choice for a catalyst, and his character development is satisfying. Mandel also paints a touching portrait of Edwin, who goes from vigorous and stubborn to become a traumatized veteran of the First World War.
But the most touching timeline is in 2202, when a novelist on a book tour unknowingly approaches another disastrous turning point in history. Olive Llewellyn lives on a lunar colony but came to Earth to promote her novel “Marienbad”, about a pandemic. (Mandel has a thing for pandemics; her acclaimed novel “Station Eleven,” which was adapted into an HBO miniseries, was about a civilization-ending pandemic, and she began writing “Sea” in March. 2020 in the heart of the pandemic in Brooklyn.)
Olive’s story in particular is imbued with a luminous melancholy, showing Mandel’s talent for evoking the essential contingency of life. Olive is a Mandel stand-in, who apparently suffered bad experiences on her own book tours, though she was chatty and cheerful when I saw her talking about her pandemic novel ‘Station Eleven’ – a year before the China does give us a taste of the real thing.
The emotional climaxes of “Sea” also involve the journeys and pallid comfort Olive feels on the road (or in a hovercraft), in those liminal spaces where a trusty suitcase can be “almost a friend” and missing her family. means “all The hotel was emptier than the previous one. Meanwhile, news of an actual virus is spreading.
During the final interview leg of the tour, the exhausted author meets a strange character from (wink) “Contingency Magazine”, who asks her if she’s ever “experienced anything strange in the terminal Oklahoma City Airship,” then poses a supposedly amusing hypothetical. question of fateful importance.
Your reviewer had an idea, perhaps unintentional on the part of the author, of characters destined to be in certain places at certain times: an unambitious person suddenly yearns for a high-risk job; another hangs around in an unpromising place as if waiting for something to happen. But in addition to these scattered, perhaps phantom, points of fate, “Sea” has the chilling and thrilling feel of a fragile universe.
One might get dizzy thinking about the questions raised by the Time Institute, such as why the holes in the space-time continuum are smoothly intersecting instead of tearing the universe apart. Could this be a clue that we are living in a simulation? If so, how could we be sure? Would this knowledge make our lives less “real”? One character, who grew up on a lunar colony, sees it this way: “I’ve always loved rain, and knowing it doesn’t come from clouds doesn’t make me love it any less.”
Mandel is a gifted nonlinear storyteller, a literary writer who eschews slippery, evasive sentences. She proves that getting to the point is not a sign of superficiality or complacency.
“Sea” ends with an odd sort of, yes, tranquility, as everything clicks into place satisfyingly. One can imagine that a lot of cards and strings contributed to making the layout both complex and easy to follow. The timestamps on the chapters are a godsend for those easily confused by time travel stories, which is me.
“Sea” is melancholic without being gloomy. “Imagine that civilization would still exist ten thousand years from now,” one character thinks pessimistically, but taken in its entirety, the novel is optimistic. Humans are still here and moving forward, suffering from disease, weather and hardship, but remaining resilient as always.