Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 escape novel, Station Eleven, told the story of a global pandemic that originated in the former Soviet Union and decimated life on Earth. A page-turner with an eerie, elegiac quality, it won the Arthur C Clarke Prize and was widely praised for its beautiful storytelling and for the unsettling glimpses it gave of our world plausibly disintegrating into chaos and the dystopian existence beyond. Five years after its release, and with an HBO adaptation in the works, it has acquired an aura of chilling prophecy as Covid-19 has made us all fluent in the language of pandemics. What makes the book’s apparent prescience doubly odd is that one of Mandel’s characteristics as a writer is to notice the echoes between seemingly chance events: the connections between distant characters, recurring artistic motifs in the life and historical echoes of long-separated incidents. The coincidence of a book significantly anticipating a current predicament might be one of its novelistic devices.
An interest in intricate patterns drives Mandel’s new novel Sea of Tranquility, though, as in Station Eleven, the naturalism and specificity of its opening give little hint of the weirdness to come. The story begins in 1912 when a young British immigrant, Edwin St John St Andrew, embarked on a new life in Canada. He is one of the so-called ‘money transfer men’ – wasteful sons of upper-class British families who were taken to the colonies on a private income to keep them out of further trouble. One day, while Edwin wanders in the woods of Western Canada, he undergoes a paranormal experience whose meaning he cannot grasp.
A few dozen pages later, the scene suddenly shifts and we are immersed in the present. At a concert in New York, a composer plays an old video that appears to show a version of everything Edwin found in the forest. Now that we’re invested in the mystery, the weirdness can really begin. There are two intertwined later storylines. One is set in the 23rd century, where a writer called Olive Llewellyn, who was born and raised on a lunar colony, visits Earth on a book tour. The other part of the plot takes place 200 years later, when an investigator named after a character from one of Olive Llewellyn’s novels begins to piece together the connections between all these different lives.
This summary does not do the book justice, but further exposition would, I think, spoil the novel for readers. Extremely ambitious in scope, yet also intimate and written with a graceful and seductive fluidity, Sea of Tranquility even invokes minor characters from another of Mandel’s earlier novels, The Glass Hotel, as it gradually shows how all these incidents and these people are part of a vast and fractured world.
Sea of Tranquility continues the good work Station Eleven has done in enticing new readers into speculative fiction. In fact, the book uses a lot more hard-core sci-fi concepts – space travel, sinister scientific institutions – but with a light touch, as if they were meant to be glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. which focuses on the human dramas at the center of the book. There’s something both fresh and old-fashioned about the novel’s comfort with omniscient storytelling, and its laid-back style that can switch between the story of a lunar colony and the most intimate moments of a human life. It conveys the dizzying sense of a reality that transcends a single existence and feels simultaneously poignant, celebratory and eerie.
One of the quieter but more compelling sections concerns Olive’s experiences on her book tour. While promoting her novel, Marienbad, on a pandemic, a true pandemic devastates 23rd century Earth and its lunar colonies. “I’ve never been into autofiction,” Olive told one of her interviewers. It looks like a nod to the reader. It’s hard not to see in Olive the portrait of the author, catapulted to fame by the unexpected success of her novel, disconcerted and upset by the sudden topicality of her research on pandemics, and eaten away by the quibbles of impatient readers. “’I was so disturbed by your book,’ said one woman in Dallas. “There were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they ultimately didn’t… It’s just finished.'”
Sounds like a real – albeit unfair – review of Station Eleven. It also seems to have stung: Mandel struggles to make sure that isn’t true of Sea of Tranquility, which dutifully pulls all its threads together for an elegant, definitive conclusion.
Still on tour, Olive gives a lecture on post-apocalyptic literature in which she attempts to explain humanity’s fascination with gender. “I think it’s a kind of narcissism,” she said. “We want to believe that we are uniquely important, that we are living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, it is finally the worst there has ever been, that we We have finally reached the end of the world.” This sounds plausible, but another explanation is offered, one that is both gentler and deeper. Observing a child’s grave, a character notes this to the child’s parents: “It would have seemed like the end of the world.”
Just as Station Eleven seemed ultimately to be about mortality itself and how art allows us to step outside the immediate limits of our existence, Sea of Tranquility reminds us that humanity’s state of rest is a crisis. Someone’s world always ends: this is the keynote of this book. And the echoes and reminders that give it shape reflect the ways in which we give meaning to our own lives.