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Staff Picks: Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility

It seems that whenever I write about a book, I like to give credit to how I found it (or do books find us?) Emily St. John Mandel’s work registered on my radar because my high school friend took her portrait photos for the Elle Magazine profile last year. However, I hardly had a clue what to expect when I picked up the copy of her novel, Sea of Tranquility, sitting on my grandfather’s side table this spring. (Shout out to my trendy 92-year-old grandpa, for keeping me up on new-ish fiction!) The book starts with an introduction to Edwin, a young man exiled to British Columbia in the early 1900s. I figured that the historical-fiction aspect of this story was sufficiently grandfather-material. However, the the story quickly morphed.

The plot jumps through a span of 500 years and centers around a question of experiencing time and pandemic. Mandel wrote the story during the COVID-19 lockdown, so this is no surprise. However, the questions that she raises about the end of the world, the way that we continue to live in this (or any) time of unknowing, provoked a feeling of tranquility within me. I expect a few of you may find that as well.

After dipping into this one, I soon learned that Mandel wrote five previous novels. In addition to being widely translated, an earlier novel, Station Eleven also exists as an HBO series. Written in 2014, the novel explores the inevitability of pandemics to humans. It seems that Mandel prophetically addressed the subject through Station Eleven in a way that clears the path for the questions of time and fate as presented in Sea of Tranquility.

Sea of Tranquility is one of those stories that I wanted to read again immediately after I reached the final page. This is not because it was confusing, but because it messed with my head in the most pleasurable way. You could say that the story transcends the lines into science-fiction because it includes time-travel. I have not read much of that genre (check out posts by Nicholas Allred and Kaitlyn Greenberg for more perspective), but this presentation reads more like a philosophical inquiry than a tale heavy on details of futurist technologies. The elements of time-travel and world-building far into the future are tools to question humanity and present/presence. Many futurist stories highlight the untenable future of our existence on Earth. Based on the science today, it’s hard to imagine Earth being habitable four hundred years into the future. Mandel addresses these uncertainties as questions, not answers. She doesn’t talk about rising seas and whatnot, but she does remind us that, just like us, many people in the past have asked if the world would end.

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