And Reality Broke
A Review of “Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel
“What if it always is the end of the world?”
A bold question for 2022, but worth considering.
The provocateur is Olive Llewellyn, one of the central characters in Emily St. John Mandel’s captivating Sea of Tranquility. Olive is an author who’s built her career on books centered around disease, pandemics, and death. But while on Earth for an extended tour in support of her most recent work, Olive’s expertise does little to prepare her for the latest disease that scythes through humanity.
The year is 2203, and Olive lives in a colony on the moon.
But before we meet Olive, we’re introduced to Edwin St. Andrew in 1912 and Mirella in 2020. And then we jump again, meeting Gaspery Roberts, an investigator in the early twenty-fifth century who’s trying to understand strange phenomena that cut across time itself.
In Sea of Tranquility, Mandel sets loose a layered, ever-shifting narrative. By turns meditative, mysterious, and meta, the novel propels us forward and backward across centuries, only gradually unveiling its deepest concern. Like her previous work, Mandel crafts a narrative that winds around pandemics, the bends in her created world’s river. While it’s still distant in his future, Edwin is on a collision course with the 1918 flu pandemic. Mirella’s world is on the cusp of Covid-19. In Olive, Mandel even leans toward sly autofiction, processing what it means to write a bestseller about a devastating pandemic only a few years before one hits.
Searching for Humanity
A step beyond the threat of catastrophic outbreaks, Sea of Tranquility transforms into a sci-fi noir. Eventually, Gaspery steps forward as the novel’s central figure, a newly minted agent for the Time Institute sent back through the years to investigate a mysterious occurrence witnessed by Edwin, Olive, and one of Mirella’s former friends. Gaspery crosses paths with each in turn, slowly piecing together the puzzle—then shoots forward again, back to the twenty-fifth century, with a bit more understanding and a lot more to be concerned about.
In its structure, Sea of Tranquility is as tight and tidy as the best time travel narratives. But as the story twists into a dense knot of recursion and consequence, the real surprise is that it ends up wound around generosity. Ultimately, Mandel isn’t focused on the mechanics of time travel or the details of sweeping diseases—she’s interested in how humans live.
Edwin finds himself in Canada in 1912, having been sent far from his wealthy British family to make a life on his own (and “to stay the hell out of England”). Bereft of ties or direction, he wanders west, eventually making his way to Vancouver Island. He quickly grows entranced by the island’s beauty—its stretching coastline, the unending Pacific, the forest thick with evergreen giants. As he approaches one particularly majestic tree, he suddenly experiences a vision that shatters his reality: a cavernous, industrial darkness; an alien noise; and a brief strain of a melody from a violin.
Mirella’s friend Vincent experienced a similar event, but the two fell out of touch years ago. A failed financial scheme, an abandoned marriage, and a husband’s suicide have driven a wedge of anger and pain between them. When Mirella learns of Vincent’s death, she seeks to understand what happened, but she ends up stumbling into a greater mystery.
Regardless of the location in the timeline, the central characters all live in worlds where their humanity is threatened by rampant disease, war, inhuman systems, and the overreach of technology. Whether islands, cities, or moon colonies, their worlds remain remarkably similar to ours. Thus the question that Gaspery, Olive, Edwin, and Mirella each face becomes the question we face: how do we maintain our humanity?
A World Always Ending
As with the plot itself, this question becomes most pointed in the intersections of the characters. During a lecture, Olive considers the proliferation of post-apocalyptic stories, their sudden rise in popularity. But she says, “Our anxiety is nothing new. When have we ever believed that the world wasn’t ending?” This comes after (and centuries before) Gaspery is warned that being an investigator with the Time Institute “requires an almost inhuman level of detachment . . . Not almost inhuman, actually inhuman.”
Mandel understands with clarity that the most interesting and most vital questions about the end of the world center on what comes next. How do we continue? How do we restore something of our lives? How do we live well? As Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson explore in their book, How to Survive the Apocalypse, the end of the world shines a blinding light on the value of our choices. Far from abandoning us to nihilism, these cataclysms become strangely fertile grounds for acts of care, generosity, and compassion. The end of the world brings awful things. Suffering. Loss. Death. And yet, it also becomes a place where grace and love can flourish. Where hope breaks through chaos.
Even in the face of calamity, there’s a profound mercy to our lives. Certainly, there’s a mystery to the preservation of human life across centuries. But the perseverance of grace and generosity is an even greater mystery than humanity’s mere existence.
We, too, live in a world simultaneously shocked and numbed by war, disease, broken systems, and encroaching technology—a world where we are constantly tempted to let our humanity slip from our grasp. A world continually ending. But this only makes our lives more radical: We are anomalies, inexplicable graces of existence, agents of mercy in a world that doesn’t have space for such acts. Which means that this world which is continually ending is also a world being continually transformed into something new.
Cover image by malith d karunarathne.