Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 breakout novel, Station Eleven, told the story of a global pandemic that originates in the former Soviet Union and decimates life on Earth. A page-turner with an eerie, elegiac quality, it won the Arthur C Clarke award and was widely praised for its fine storytelling and for the unsettling glimpses it gave of our world plausibly unravelling into chaos and the dystopian existence beyond it. Five years after it came out, and with an HBO adaptation in the pipeline, it acquired an aura of creepy prophecy as Covid-19 made us all fluent in the language of pandemics. What made the book’s apparent prescience doubly strange is that one of Mandel’s hallmarks as a writer is noticing the echoes between apparently chance events: the links between distant characters, motifs from art recurring in life, and the historical echoes of long-separated incidents. The coincidence of a book meaningfully anticipating a current predicament could be one of her novelistic devices.
An interest in complex patterns animates Mandel’s new novel, Sea of Tranquility, though, as in Station Eleven, the naturalism and specificity of its opening gives little idea of the strangeness to come. The story begins in 1912 as a young British immigrant, Edwin St John St Andrew, is embarking on a new life in Canada. He’s one of the so-called “remittance men” – wastrel sons of upper-class British families who were packed off to the colonies on a private income to keep them out of further trouble. One day, as Edwin wanders in the woods of western Canada, he undergoes a paranormal experience whose meaning he cannot begin to fathom.
A few dozen pages on, the scene suddenly shifts and we are plunged into the present. At a concert in New York a composer is playing an old piece of video that seems to show a version of whatever Edwin found in the forest. Now that we’re invested in the mystery, the weirdness can really begin. There are two subsequent interwoven storylines. One unfolds in the 23rd century, where a writer called Olive Llewellyn, who was born and raised on a lunar colony, is visiting Earth on a book tour. The other plot strand takes place 200 years later, when an investigator named after a character in one of Olive Llewellyn’s novels begins to piece together the connections between all these different lives.
This summary doesn’t do the book justice, but further exposition would, I think, spoil the novel for readers. Hugely ambitious in scope, yet also intimate and written with a graceful and beguiling fluency, Sea of Tranquility even invokes minor characters from another of Mandel’s previous novels, The Glass Hotel, as it gradually shows how all these incidents and people are part of one vast and fractured world.
Sea of Tranquility continues the good work done by Station Eleven in seducing new readers to speculative fiction. In fact, the book uses many more out-and-out science fiction conceits – space travel, sinister scientific institutions – but with a lightness of touch, as though they are intended to be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye that’s focused on the human dramas at the book’s centre. There’s something simultaneously fresh and old-fashioned in the novel’s comfort with omniscient narration, and its relaxed style that can swoop between the history of a lunar colony and the most intimate moments of a human life. It conveys the vertiginous sense of a reality that transcends a single existence and feels simultaneously poignant, celebratory and uncanny.
One of the quietest yet most compelling sections concerns Olive’s experiences on her book tour. As she promotes her novel, Marienbad, about a pandemic, a real pandemic is devastating the 23rd-century Earth and its lunar colonies. “I’ve never been interested in autofiction,” Olive tells one of her interviewers. This feels like a wink at the reader. It’s hard not to see Olive as a portrait of the author, catapulted to fame by the unexpected success of her novel, baffled and distressed by the sudden topicality of her research into pandemics, and fretting over the quibbles of impatient readers. “‘I was so confused by your book,’ a woman in Dallas said. ‘There were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t ultimately … It just ended.’”
This sounds like a real – if unfair – criticism of Station Eleven. It also seems to have stung: Mandel goes out of her way to make it not true of Sea of Tranquility, which conscientiously draws together all its threads for an elegant and definitive conclusion.
Also on her tour, Olive gives a lecture about post-apocalyptic literature in which she tries to explain humanity’s fascination with the genre. “I think it’s a kind of narcissism,” she says. “We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.” It sounds plausible, but another explanation is offered, one that is both kinder and more profound. Observing a child’s grave, a character notes that to the child’s parents: “It would have felt 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 confines of our existence, Sea of Tranquility reminds us that humanity’s resting state is crisis. Someone’s world is always ending: that is the keynote of this book. And the echoes and callbacks that give it its shape reflect the ways we make our own lives meaningful.