Sea of Tranquility is Emily St. John Mandel’s sixth novel. Once again, she is indulging in a science fiction scenario, which she also did in what may be her most famous work, Station Eleven. She denied she was writing science fiction, but the novel has been adapted into a streaming series to good effect and is undeniably post-apocalyptic SF. (The reasons literary authors like Mandel find it necessary to disclaim that their work is SF are many and varied and could serve as an interesting study. Suffice it to say that it is a tradition now and originated in the simple reality of market share. That would no longer seem to be valid, given the bankability of SF these days, so we are left musing over sensibilities and pretensions.)
Like Margaret Atwood before her, Mandel seems now to have come to terms with her relationship to science fiction and has produced a work that cannot be plausibly read as anything else. The question then is, how good is it?
As science fiction, it is unremarkable, but not bad. We have now a couple of generations of writers from all genres who have grown up in an aesthetic universe informed by Star Trek, Star Wars, the Terminator, and now the excellent work being done in limited series. It’s bound to rub off, despite the efforts of MFA programs that often regard SF as less than acceptable.
And this leads to the slightly at-variance receptions of readers to such work. For the SF fan, a work like this says nothing new about the universe. For the literary reader largely unfamiliar with SF, it may seem refreshingly outré. Depends on one’s reading history.
The basic set-up in Sea of Tranquility can be traced back to something like Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories, which have as their basic ethic—their Prime Directive, if you will—the mandate to guard the timeline to keep history from changing. There is an organization, agents are recruited, various points in time are investigated, aberrations hunted down and “corrected.” We can see the idea in Isaac Asimov’s End of Eternity and in many other works by numerous writers, all of which are concerned with the ramifications of time travel. (Two of the most famous examples come from Robert A. Heinlein—By His Bootstraps and All You Zombies. Heinlein used time travel a number of times, to mixed results. The problems to be grappled with are a rich font of philosophical—not to mention physical—speculation. Presently, the new series based on William Gibson’s superb novel, The Peripheral, is thoroughly exploring the ramifications of time travel.)
The protagonist of Sea of Tranquility, Gaspery Roberts, lives on the moon, in a decaying colony, and leads a relatively aimless life until events bring him to the attention of the institute for which his sister works. She—and they—are essentially the Time Patrol. Gaspery volunteers to help them investigate an anomaly they have discovered, an apparent “hole” in time, which may answer the question, Are We Living In A Simulation?
This is a current—though minor—matter of interest in philosophy and, to some extent, physics. One might reasonably ask, what difference would it make? But there is a certain question of maleability involved, which leads to the ethical issues in keeping the timeline “pristine.”
Mandel then constructs a loop to tell the story of the anomaly and how it involves Gaspery.
The essence of the novel comes down to choices. Everyone’s, really. The engine that drives the novel is Choice. Gaspery’s, certainly, as he becomes a rogue actor, but in every instance throughout the book Mandel examines the consequences of choice. By tying it to the universe at large, through the conceit of time travel (and, secondarily, by asking whether this is all a simulation) she connects it to the fabric of the world itself.
In this, she steps outside the familiar precincts of the purely literary novel, in which choice is certainly important, but only as it affects the people involved with each other. It never alters the stuff of reality. There is seldom this binding of philosophy to physics. That’s the realm of science fiction.
The question then, is Mandel successful in this endeavor?
On the whole, yes. She tells a compelling story. The characters are engaging, their situations distinct and intriguing, and the throughlines are followed scrupulously. Costs are levied and paid, solutions are frustratingly short of desire, and the settings nicely drawn. The central questions are foregrounded (as one would expect from a science fiction novel) and tied to questions beyond the internal concerns of the characters. The world itself is brought into play in interesting ways. It is on a number of levels satisfying.
It is not state-of-the art science fiction, but it does not seem Mandel is trying for that. She’s going for reliably suggestive. That it is derivative (of so much one would not expect her to be familiar with) is not here a detractor. Some of the speculation of what the future may be like is too conservative, but not so much that the story is derailed by incongruities. The major speculations are kept off-stage—mentioned but not examined (there are interstellar colonies, for instance)—and she avoids the pitfall of too much technical detail.
It is the confluence of her characters, coming together in an unexpected way, that keeps us reading. She even suggests an answer to the Big Question, but leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusion.
We are in many ways tied to people and history unpredictably. There are orbits and the mechanics thereof dictating the path of our hearts. In these matters, Mandel has given us a contemplation of surprising moment.