Sea of Tranquility

by Emily St. John Mandel

Published 2022 255 pages

What fun—a good old-fashioned time travel romp.

The novel presents itself in 7 main parts, in a sort of rising-falling pattern as we move through time: Part 1 is set in 1912, while Part 2 is set in 2020, Part 3 in 2203, Part 4 in 2401—and then Part 5 in 2203 again, Part 6 back around the turn of the 21st century, and then Part 7 back in the (/our) past. All of our characters, all across time, are connected by a common experience: of being simultaneously in a forest and in an airship terminal, hearing a short melody on the violin. The protagonist of the novel, Gaspery, is a detective trying to discover the cause of this "anomaly"; the eventual cause leads him across time and space (and is a fun twist for the reader!).

There are a lot of (fair) comparisons to Cloud Atlas in the meta. I don't agree with the ones that use Cloud Atlas as an example of why this is a bad book: Cloud Atlas expertly stacks layers of time, but Sea of Tranquility finds the common element of humanity that pierces each layer and collapses them on a handful of moments, and I think that's really pretty in a sort of forlorn way. People live; people die in pandemics; the world moves on; everything ends; "no star burns forever".

That is to say, the story is good and the drama is effective! I enjoyed my time with the book—but! I felt like the characters fell a bit flat. The book moves along at a brisk trot, which is great for pacing but not great for character development. Most of the book's population consist of jaded, trauma-burdened folks yearning for a little space to breathe and process their ennui and they all sort of blend into one.

Gaspery, the detective protagonist, gets a little more development than the rest of the cast, but the book yada-yadas over a lot of his life—5 years at first, and then another 30 or so years late in the story—and we miss out on the events that (presumably) change his perspective on things. He's hired at the Time Institute based (at least partly) on his emotional detachment from people in other times, but when he finally meets someone else whose demise he knows—and which, crucially, he can avert!—he stakes his entire character on interfering with the timeline, much to his employer's frustration. The moment doesn't feel earned, though.

Other characters were a little on the nose—Olive Llewellyn especially felt like a bit of a self-insert from the author, and Vincent & Paul are lifted directly from Mandel's earlier The Glass Hotel. It doesn't detract from the story, though.

Come to think of it, the pandemic stuff is a little on the nose as well. Gaspery briefly reels at partygoers' physical intimacy at a party in 2007:

He was utterly unnerved by the crowd. They were shaking hands, which even after all of his cultural-sensitivity training seemed like a bizarre thing to do in flu season, and kissing one another on the cheek. These people have no direct experience of pandemics, he reminded himself. (210)

I'm not sure what to make of Gaspery's meddling with the timeline, either, since his actions don't ever lead to an unambiguous improvement in people's circumstances. He tries to prevent one character from being committed to an asylum, but they die in a pandemic anyway; he tries to prevent another from dying in a pandemic, but they wind up an incurable hypochondriac, confined to their home and literally touching grass for a modicum of relief.

I think we're meant to feel for Gaspery, and empathise with his desire to fix the timeline, but it doesn't feel like he fixes anything. I think the book recognises this, too: when an official at the Time Institute points out that Gaspery hasn't materially changed people's circumstances, Gaspery responds, "You're missing the point," to which the official says, "That's very possible." And that's exactly how far the book carries that train of thought.

Overall a fun romp through time! Effective story, fun twist, flat characters but I didn't mind too much. A great book for a drowsy weekend read.


AI consciousness

A re-framing of a topic that I don't think about that much.