Review: ‘Sea of ​​Tranquility,’ by Emily St. John Mandel

Roberts grew up on the moon in the late 24th century. When the story turns, finally, to him, it’s the dawn of the 25th, and our mystery man is at loose ends, working as a house detective at the Grand Luna Hotel. Though relocated to the high-functioning Colony One, the nostalgia-prone Roberts is haunted by his upbringing in the relatively derelict Colony Two, aka the Night City, “the place where the sky was always black,” because the failure of the protective dome’s artificial lighting system was judged too expensive to fix. His work at the hotel, where he is paid just to be present and pay attention to what happens around him, would seem like dubious preparation for any other job, but he soon takes up a new position in his brilliant sister Zoey’s shop, a most curious entity called the Time Institute. At this point, there have already been hints about where and when his unusual new job will take him, but the why? of his journey — an investigation into the anomalous vision, which may have alarming implications about the nature of reality — has yet to be unfurled.

Mandel has worked adroitly with multiple timelines in his previous books, leaping back and forth between the past, present and future to explore killer viruses and Madoff-inspired Ponzi schemes. Her characters from her, too, have frequently felt temporarily discombobulated. In “The Glass Hotel,” for example, a key player, the above-mentioned Vincent, says, “I am aware of a border but I can’t tell which side I’m on, and it seems I can move between memories like walking from one room to the next.” She also says, more plainly, “I am out of time.”

In “Sea of ​​Tranquility,” Mandell makes that metaphor — feeling out of sync — quite literal and uses a machine to send Roberts and others out on missions across time. The 20th, 21st, 23rd and 25th centuries are all visited here with plenty of now-familiar, pop-culture concern about temporal health expressed along the way.

If this were a different sort of novel, it might be reasonable to fret that stories like Ray Bradbury’s classic “A Sound of Thunder,” novels like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” television shows like “Dr. Who,” certain episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or even Disney’s recent madcap “Loki,” had done time travel stories better, or at least earlier, and in most cases with more elaborately imagined tech. But Mandel is interested in something other than limning the highs and lows of timeline trotting and figuring out what to do — it’s never good, is it? — when someone like Roberts steps off the path, as he eventually does, to try to help someone in the past. Indeed, though the speculative elements in “Sea of ​​Tranquility” (which was written during the Covid-19 pandemic and discusses the crushing impact of pandemics more broadly) are set in service of an attempt to make some sense of huge societal and existential crises and pose good old questions like what does it mean to be alive, Mandel’s novel has more in common with tech-minimized sci-fi outings like Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.”

In “Sea of ​​Tranquility,” Mandel offers one of her finest novels and one of her most satisfying forays into the arena of speculative fiction yet, but it is her ability to convincingly inhabit the ordinary, and her ability to project a sustaining acknowledgment of beauty. , that sets the novel apart. As in Ishiguro, this is not born of some cheap, made-for-television, faux-emotional gimmick or mechanism, but of empathy and hard-won understanding, beautifully built into language, for all of us who inhabit this “green-and -blue world” and who one day might live well beyond.

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