Spanning from 1912 to a night colony on the moon, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel is a story about humanity in an era of time travel. A disturbance in time in the year 1912, present time, and some in the year 2203 all seem to have some thread between them, at least that’s the hypothesis of a time traveler in 2401. As a small team of time travelers starts to investigate reality and the nature of passing time is called into question. What becomes obvious is that the more things change, the more they stay the same as these disturbances come into focus.
‘“But all of this raises an interesting question,” Olive said. “What if it always is the end of the world?”
She paused for effect. Before her, the holographic audience was almost perfectly still.
“Because we might reasonably think of the end of the world,” Olive said, “as a continuous and never-ending process.”’
– Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility
I have been a huge fan of Emily St. John Mandel since I read Station Eleven back in 2017 and had the pleasure of early reviewing The Glass Hotel in 2020. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel is no exception when it comes to the soft, human quality of her work.
When I think of the genre that Sea of Tranquility represents, Sci-Fi, I often associate that with harsh conditions and the otherness of new concepts, places, and frankly, aliens. St. John Mandel instead focuses this genre on the live human experience of our planet and people. Doing so genuinely captures the softness of the human experience in the midst of a genre that’s not usually that. The best way I can think to describe this book is a soft time travel. The questions posed by the time travel and the people involved created a beautiful story that stand-alone would have been amazing.
But it didn’t stand alone. In this book, in particular, she introduces the idea of a pandemic in a book that is mainly about time travel. During many of the interviews she’s given for this tour (I particularly suggest the ones she’s done for The Maris Review and for The Ezra Klein Show, both podcasts) she has spoken about the fact that much of the character Olive’s experience was based on St. John Mandel’s experience both on a book tour and in the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, I felt seen by the book. It described small details in perfect clarity about the experience of being human during those early days.
I truly think this might be my best book of the year (and we’re only in April!). At the very least I think this will be one of the defining pieces of literature coming out of the COVID-19 Pandemic and continues St. John Mandel’s streak of writing some of the best books of this era.
I recommend this book if you’re looking for soft, ephemeral Sci-Fi + a deep emotional understanding of the pandemic.
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