…this is what the Time Institute never understood: if definitive proof emerges that we’re living in a simulation, the correct response tothat news will be So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.-Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility
After recently reading and enjoying The Glass Hotel, I was eager to get my hands on Emily St. John Mandel’s most recent novel, especially having heard that the two were linked. While Sea of Tranquility isn’t precisely a sequel, I do think it’s helpful to have read both The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven first as St John Mandel is definitely writing here within the context of those two books. In particular, characters and locations from The Glass Hotel appear here and it was helpful to already be familiar with them.
In trying to describe this book to someone recently I found myself adding the disclaimer, “It’s not really science fiction. It’s just partially set on the Moon.” When describing the book, it might sound like sci-fi – there is time travel and moon colonies and futuristic technology. But all of that feels peripheral rather than something the author truly wants us to focus on. Characters live on the moon because those sections are set in the future when we have made large sections of Earth unliveable. People have to survive so humans have found a way to colonize the moon. But in an even further future, those same Moon colonies are rundown and largely abandoned to crime and poverty. Time travel exists but it is strictly regulated and very secretive.
The story moves through sections of time – 1912 in western BC where a young man, the third son of a Lord in England has been sent away to forge his own future. January 2020 where Mirella (you may remember her from The Glass Hotel) is coming to terms with how her deep friendship with Vincent Smith ended. 2203 where an author has arrived on Earth to embark on a book tour, just as a deadly pandemic begins to sweep the planet. 2401 where a drifting man gets a job as a sort of detective at the Time Institute.
What draws these times together is an anomaly. A moment that several characters – in different times and places – shared. A connection between a remote forest in British Columbia and an airship terminal in the 23rd century. Gaspary has been hired by the Time Institute to travel to various points in time and interview a variety of people, to pinpoint what this anomaly means. The implication being that if time can warp like this, can be flawed like this, it could mean that none of it is real. And what does it mean if we are actually living in a simulation?
(I was 12 when The Matrix was first released in theatres so the concept of living in a simulation is one that’s almost always been a part of my life. Wikipedia tells me that St. John Mandel is just six years older than me so one has to imagine that she also saw The Matrix at a relatively crucial developmental point of life.)
Of course, time travel is tricky and the potential for change is enormous. To be an effective detective through time requires an almost inhuman lack of empathy, as Gaspery soon learns. He is forced to choose what he will reveal to the people he meets and how he will protect himself.
This is also a pandemic novel. It’s not hard to see the parallels between the character of Olive who is on a book tour to promote her novel about a pandemic when a real life pandemic breaks out. St. John Mandel is, of course, the author of Station Eleven, a novel about a pandemic that became very popular in 2020. There are scenes of lockdowns and isolation and death in this future pandemic that will feel very familiar to most of us.
Like the author’s previous novels, it’s hard to pinpoint the main character here and there are a lot of different threads. Some ending more satisfactorily than others. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by St. John Mandel so far, including this one, particularly as I liked seeing the way she expanded the universe of her own fiction to connect her books together. If you haven’t enjoyed her previous novels, this won’t be for you, and if you haven’t yet read her work, this isn’t the place to begin.