Review: The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

The Sea of Tranquility / Emily St. John Mandel / Penguin Random House, April 2022 –
$25 (Hardcover)

Between the 1 and the 0: Review of Sea of Tranquility by Emily St.John Mandel 

Emily St. John Mandel takes the reader on a poignant journey in an exploration of the simulation hypothesis and prospects of time traveling in her latest novel, Sea of Tranquility. Weaving together contemporary and historical tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic, World War I, and futuristic prognosis of potential technological failure, exemplified as the “file corruption” in the now parseable timeline (Part 6, Chapter 3). Mandel probes the apocalypse not as a source of mass panic but as a series of breakdowns in individual lives. The episodicity of this method, as reflected in the Faulknerian multiple first-person narrative structure (though some date this technique back to the Gospels of the New Testament), is both necessitated by the novel’s dealings with non-linearly structured time, as well as its efforts to create discrete and recognizable characters. 

Though perhaps no summary would do the story itself justice, the general outline of the novel is as follows: In the 22nd century, humans have gone through multiple relocations from the lunar colonies to other planetary colonies due to our repeated “offense” of the drainage of natural resources of the geography. The Time institute, the establishment that developed the technique of time travel and is now devoted to the upkeeping of the integrity of time-lines, employs Gaspery-Jacques (whose sister Zoe is a physicist that is also employed by the Time Institute) to investigate an anomaly. This file-moment corruption is seen by Zoe as a potential indication of the truth of the Simulation Hypothesis, which states that all individuals could be living in a simulation. Though consistently warned about not disrupting the timelines and letting things happen as they are meant to be, Gaspery-Jacques nevertheless notifies Olive Llewellyn, a 23rd-century author, about the incoming pandemic which would have originally taken her life. Similarly, Gaspery-Jacques then interviews Edwin, a World War I veteran and physically disabled, and assures him that his moment of “hallucination” in Canada — whose report results in Edwin being sent to the insane asylum — was not a moment of hallucination after all. Due to these two disarrangements, Gaspery-Jacques is punished by the Time Institute which condemns him to imprisonment in our present time by handing him a gun at the scene of a homicide where Mirella, a close associate of Vincent Alkaitis who happens to record down the noise of the anomaly in one of her home videos, is the witness. Zoe, however, accepts a time offer in the Far Colonies in exchange for the opportunity to rescue her brother and thereby transports Gaspery-Jacques to Oklahoma City in 2172 where he marries Talia (a neighbor from his childhood) and lives to old age. At the end of the story, it is revealed that the time anomaly of the story is caused by Gaspery-Jacques himself whose time-traveling self interviewed his aged self playing the violin in the airport terminal of Oklahoma City.  

Though technically occupying the genre of science fiction, Sea of Tranquility reads much more like a psychological drama: with its multiple first-person, episodic, and rather non-technical structures of writing, the reader is much more engrossed in the lives and emotions of the characters rather than the theoretical framework. This can best be attributed to how the novel chooses to establish each character: notably, through the rather-uncommon method of occupational association. 

As Edwin makes his debut, he struggles with his aristocratic beginnings. By putting down “farmer” in the manifest of the ship, Edwin is shocked by his own carelessness for he has never so much as “touched a spade” (Part 1, Chapter 1). This almost-pitiable physical innocence serves as a set-up for the later revelation of his experience as a soldier in World War I and his emotional and physical disorientation as a result. 

Olive, the saved author, is often employed as a medium to express Mandel’s own self-awareness: in her book tour, a reader comments that “I was so confused by your book….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.’ (Part 3, Chapter 1). However, this rather abrupt fourth wall break in which Mandel addresses criticism for her last novel, Eleventh Station, can appear rather jarring and redundant for those new to her work. Mandel runs into the age-old dilemma of all authors: the portrayal of a fictional author that avoids the trap of self-portrait. Though Mandel largely avoids this issue by omitting depictions of Olive’s artistic process, certain commentaries spread throughout the book induce exogenous confusion that certainly does not help with the novel’s moral and narrative clarity. The novel, in this sense, tiptoes over the red line of attempting to “doing too much”. 

However, let’s return to our other working characters. Gaspery-Jacques takes upon the task of the investigation due to his own “pathetic-sounding” employment history (Part 4, Chapter 6). Prior to his time-traveling job, he barely completed his criminology degree and was a security guard at a hotel. Compared to his female family members, who were both academics, Gaspery-Jacques feels a lingering sense of inferiority — revealed in his confession that “it would be awful if she were to tell me that the other Gaspery-Jacques were, say, a strikingly handsome and generally impressive person who was extremely focused on his schoolwork and never committed petty theft.” (Part 4, Chapter 2). This fear of under-accomplishment underlies all of the four characters, and one cannot help but see this occupational disorientation as inspired by the great unemployment crisis that occurred during the real COVID-19 pandemic. By focusing on careers as a major source of unfulfillment, Mandel brings the inquiry of the book outside of it: part of the motivation for doubting the existence of the “real” (whatever it might mean) is the overwhelming modern obsession with self-definition by profession. When that path is taken away by the pandemic, one cannot help but feel “pathetic” and hollow — Mandel, then, is subsequently investigating the question of self-identity without the pre-occupation of work. 

Following this train of philosophical thought, Mandel does deal subtly but deeply with issues of  modern manifestations of colonialism and the acceleration of exploitation as aided by technological advances (originally conceived as benevolent). Edwin’s comments on colonialism, the depiction of humanity’s relocation through the “colonies” (evidentially named to invoke such connections), and the negative depiction of the Time Institute as a self-preserving institution hiding under the pretense of being a scientific vanguard all demonstrate Mandel’s carefulness when it comes to these intricate issues. Mandel does not dive into issues of technology being either a saving grace or a channel for catastrophe but instead echoes a Heideggerian framework that treats this ambiguity as the key to salvation and human employment of technology as the true dilemma.

Last but certainly not least, the character of Mirella, at a first glance, appears to serve the function of connective tissue rather than being a free-standing phenomenon. Neither her career nor her relationships seem central to the plotline: she functions as a witness to all the essential occurrences of the novel and is largely sidetracked compared to the other three characters. Her relationships, by which the readers identify her as a character, are not substantial enough to construct a three-dimensional figure. The best explanation one can offer for this obvious disparity is Mirella’s temporal belonging: as a character of (our) present, her powerlessness and inaction are reflective of the readers’ own debilitated state. However, this also plays against the point made earlier: if Mirella is to serve as the stand-in for the reader in 2020, then her inabilities spell a certain pessimism that downgrades the complexities previously established by the novel’s other elements. Parallel to this shortcoming is Gaspery-Jacques’ execution of his brand of heroism: if Mandel, as she exclaims in the novel, is aiming to challenge our collective narcissism that reflects itself in our obsession with apocalyptic literature, then Gaspery-Jacques’ “heroism” in warning Olive of the incoming pandemic appears both trivial and narcissistic. 

As previously stated, Sea of Tranquility hardly qualifies as a piece of serious science fiction. Similarly, its dealings with the Simulation Hypothesis and the metaphysics of reality are lacking in philosophical rigor. The novel invokes questions of the authenticity of reality not to investigate them solemnly — most directly reflected in Gaspery-Jacques’ old-age contemplation that “if definitive proof emerges that we’re living in a simulation, the correct response to that news will be So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.” — and therefore titillates on the edge of appearing trite (Part 8, Chapter 7). 

Another aspect of the novel that exposes itself to such risk is the narrative style: the dash lines separating the characters’ stories and the rather arbitrary insertions of poetic stanzas seem more ornamental than corroborative of the plot. One also cannot help but recall Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with the employment of these two techniques and the time-traveling theme. However, this comparison perhaps only imparts more disappointment one might be holding regarding Sea of Tranquility, for Vonnegut’s mastery is exactly located in his employment of these structural variations in the construction of his philosophical point while Mandel’s divisions do no more than merely highlighting the fragmentary nature of memory and time of which the rest of the novel does sufficiently well on its own.

Despite the criticism leveraged against the style, however, I see the title as an accurate reflection of Mandel’s project: the novel unmistakably reads like a solemn surface of the sea.

— Skylar Wu