Sometimes order can be relentless, and even when it comes to the hazards of time travel, sometimes a “glitch” in the order is called for. So it is with Emily St. John Mandel’s time-bending, beautiful 2022 novel, Sea of Tranquility. Mandel’s book is in contention for the best books I’ve read thus far this year. I was 25 pages in when I had that lovely self-awareness feeling I get occasionally with consuming art, “This is going to be good,” and it was exceedingly good. The writing was crisp, with a flow that made me largely devour the book in two sittings this morning, and yet, the writing was also evocative and moving. And still yet, the book was also genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, like when one of the characters in the near future doesn’t recognize cursive English.
Mandel’s book follows a few characters across the centuries: Edwin St. John St. Andrew, an Englishman living in exile in Canada for questioning British imperialism of India, specifically in the early 20th century; Mirella, who is trying to learn what happened to her best friend, Vincent, on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020; Olive Llewellyn, a famous author on book tour throughout the universe (I have to say universe because she’s crisscrossing Earth after coming from one of the moon colonies) in the year 2203, and also getting forewarnings about a new pandemic; and finally, Gaspery Roberts and his sister, Zoey, who are detectives of time travel with the Time Institute in the year 2401.
I have to say, Mandel’s vignettes of these characters were so well-done and so richly etched, I could have read an entire book from the point-of-view of Edwin or Olive. I was that enthralled and invested in them.
The book isn’t so much about time travel, although that exists within this universe and is tightly controlled by the Time Institute, albeit, they don’t realize another time travel machine exists in the Far Colonies, but about the Time Institute’s investigation into the simulation hypothesis: whether we are living in a simulation. The catalyst for the investigation is an experience that connects all the aforementioned characters beginning with a maple tree in a Canadian forest. Edwin experienced both the forest and an airship terminal, and heard violin music; the violin music occurred at the same time Olive was passing a violinist in the airship terminal in her time. And Vincent filmed the “glitch” in the potential simulation, which her brother showed at an exhibit of sorts to Mirella. Also, this brings Gaspery and Zoey on the case to see if it is evidence of a simulation; Gaspery, it should be noted, is just looking for something to break up the “relentless order” of things. After all, in this far-flung future, humans have three moon colonies, a colony on Titan I believe, and then the vague Far Colonies, as well as a few humans who still live on Earth. But on those colonies, they live under dome skies with dome atmospheres … simulating what it was like on Earth. Along with the proliferation of holograms (which are ubiquitous when the plague hits Olive’s time; our equivalent of Zoom), even if humans aren’t technically living in a simulation, they basically have created their own simulation of reality! I found that amusing and alarming in equal measure.
(As an aside, how would moon colonization work, anyway? I get the concept, in theory, of moving humanity to a colony on the moon with a dome-like atmosphere mirroring Earth’s, but how would we duplicate the natural ecosystem we exist in? Not just plant-life because you can plant trees, but the bees, other insects, and animals of the food chain that make it all … work for us? One positive in this future Mandel mentions is that it’s illegal to kill animals for food.)
Zoey is more jaded about time travel than Gaspery, again who is looking for a thrill beyond hotel “security.” That’s because the ugly side of time travel is readily apparent: Whenever you go back in time, you do so knowing not only that everyone you encounter will die, obviously, but how they will die, often in very preventable ways. When Gaspery goes back in time with the stated objective of being the last interviewer on Olive’s book tour before she dies three days later to her century’s pandemic, Gaspery can’t help but warn her and Olive heeds his words, thankfully, returning home to her husband and five-year-old daughter.
Side bar, but also maybe the whole point of my interpretation of the book, is that Mandel’s reflections on the pandemic are quite poignant, certainly written with some perspective gained from experiencing COVID-19. She notes at one point that pandemics don’t approach with the literal loudness and obviousness of wars; they “arrive in retrospect.” “The pandemic is far away and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step.” That absolutely is how I would describe the onslaught, if you will, of the COVID-19 pandemic. But also, it’s dismaying and dystopian that in Mandel’s vision of the present and the future, with its holograms, robots, flying aircraft, AI technology, and moon colonization, that the throughline of chaotic (pushing against that order!) viruses still exist, still vex us, and still kill us in extraordinary numbers (five percent of the population in Olive’s time!). Which brings me to my interpretation of the book, but first, I should explain what ends up happening.
As it turns out, with Gaspery’s investigation, there wasn’t a glitch in the simulation — Gaspery reflects that even if there was, so what, simulation is still life as we experience it day-to-day; to which, I would retort, sure, but also, wouldn’t you want to know who or what is behind the simulation?! — rather, the glitch manifest in the timeline because of Gaspery’s very presence in the timeline. He ends up being the violinist who he interviewed earlier in the book about the glitch!
So, my interpretation going back to the virus issue, then: Is the “glitch” in our simulation, our reality, if you prefer, viruses? In the book, Mandel compares the glitch in the simulation to a corrupted file, and isn’t a “glitch” in a computer file often caused by a virus? Mandel also reckons through the Olive character giving lectures on her dystopian book that the reason we are drawn to post-apocalyptic novels is because we like to think of ourselves at the end of the story, the end of civilization, but perhaps we (each “set” of civilizations) is at the end of the story in a continuous strain, as it were, i.e., a repetition of endings over and over again. And are viruses not a great catalyst for endings throughout our history, creating glitches and “new timelines” after “world endings”?
And these repeated endings is where we get also Mandel’s rumination resulting in the title of the book: “life can be tranquil in the face of death.” Life itself is the “sea of tranquility.” Gaspery comes to find peace living on a farm in Oklahoma City after being hidden by his sister (after being exiled by the Time Institute) because he’s living his life and did right by that life and the life of others by warning Olive, for example. Living the good life, simulation or not, turbulence or not (I’m mixing metaphors here), is tranquil in its own way. How could it be anything but in the face of the relentless order that death will come? In some ways, our very existence is a rebellion against that order.
I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am grateful it was recommended to me. Mandel offers an entertaining book, to be sure, which is why I devoured it, but also profound insight into what it means to be human regardless of time and place and the fact of death. Like I said, only Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, Mudbound, I read earlier this year can contend with this for my favorite reads of 2023 so far.