Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Sea of Tranquility is the first work of Canadian novelist and essayist, Emily St. John Mandel, that I have read, and I found it to be quite an unusual experience. The book is set out with a Table of Contents showing eight segments indicating that their contents cover events or storylines in several diverse time periods. Each section comprises chapters, some of which are no more than one or two paragraphs. Most of the chapters in the last segment, Anomaly, are quite brief. The first page of each chapter begins halfway down the page and not all pages are numbered.
Research tells me that this sixth Mandel novel is part sequel part standalone and continues Mandel’s theme of tying together vignettes of different people in different times. Sea of Tranquility both reflects our current crisis of a pandemic and revisits moments and characters from Mandel’s preceding two books.
The Sea of Tranquility storyline begins in 1912 with the third son of a British family who is shipped off to Canada. This privileged young man is adrift with no motivation to establish himself.
A different story then emerges set in 2020 with a video artist and a composer and there is a violinist in a transit centre in 2195.
In 2203, an author undertakes a world book tour, and her experiences while there and concerns of a pandemic are the focus of this next section. It is at this stage that the reader is made aware of off-planet worlds, and this is further advanced in the next segment entitled Bad Chickens/2401 – from the saying chickens coming home to roost. It is in this part of the book that the reader is introduced to prototype colonies near the Sea of Tranquility on the moon.
The only thing obviously connecting these storylines is a strange experience encountered at each different time. At this stage, I also became aware of one particular name that appeared in every storyline. The rest of the book is about this character and how he intersects with the people in the other stories.
The reader is now introduced to the Night City on the moon where night and day and weather patterns are simulated under an encompassing dome. Here also is introduced the possibility ‘that all reality is a simulation’ (111) and that there may be ‘moments from different centuries’ which could be ‘bleeding into one another’ (128). The dominant character from here on is Gaspery–Jacques Roberts who is hired to investigate this strange anomaly.
This is the first book that I have read recently where the cover links so beautifully with the storyline that follows and the only book where my first impression of a story was completely overturned.
I started out being very sceptical but by the middle of the book I was hooked. Maybe the connection to a pandemic with lockdowns and panic buying forged a closer connection for me or the writer’s ability to highlight truisms such as ‘bureaucracy exists to protect itself’ (167) and that as a species ‘we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story’ (189), but my attitude towards the tale in this book took a 180 degree turn.
I loved the unexpected snippets that added humour or turned the readers expectations in a new direction.
In Sea of Tranquility, Mandel has produced a most satisfying foray into the arena of speculative fiction and reminds us that even the most life-changing, seemingly unique, moments will eventually repeat themselves …
Sea of Tranquility
by Emily St. John Mandel
ISBN 978 152908 350 7