Arts, Books

Mandel Blends Science Fiction With Relationship Complexities in ‘Sea of Tranquility’


Our lives are intertwined in infinite and unchangeable ways. Occasionally, these connections are obvious, like when you happen to meet someone with the exact same name. It just happens arbitrarily. But most of the time, these links are only noticeable through the lens of a third party, observing all the anomalies and seemingly coincidental events that happen in our lives. 

In the book Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, the third-party narrator reveals all the connections between the lives of the characters.

Most science fiction novels are not subtle. But, reminiscent of the movie Interstellar, Mandel loops in the science fiction aspects of her book in a way so ingrained with the storyline, it feels natural and plausible to happen in real life. Her version of science fiction is not too outlandish or so confusing that it’s hard to follow, but it truly makes for a compelling story. 

The novel follows the stories of Edwin in 1912, Mirella and Vincent in 2020, and Olive in 2203. Even across different millennia, their lives are connected through the same, seemingly impossible anomaly. This cross-generational format of Mandel’s novel is similar to her previous novel Station Eleven in which characters jump forward and backward in time, with everything connecting at the end. 

Similar to how it affected many other writers’ work during the COVID-19 pandemic, COVID-19 greatly influenced Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. She includes subtle hints about the pending viral outbreak in the chapter “Mirella and Vincent,” as their story takes place as the news of the disease hits the U.S.

In the chapter called “Last Book Tour on Earth” featuring Olive, a new, highly contagious infection is spreading in Australia. The contagion causes alarm for Olive and her husband, who are living on different planets while Olive is on her book tour. Olive resides on Earth, while her husband lives in Moon Colony 2. Olive’s book Marienbad is also based on a pandemic and seems to be written similarly to Sea of Tranquility

During Olive’s chapter, Mandel makes traveling by hovercraft seem like an everyday occurance for the reader even though they only exist in the fictitious world. But the hovercrafts still deal with the same inconveniences, such as traffic, as cars do in today’s age. Mandel combines these futuristic elements with the mundane to make them feel more relevant to a current reader. 

While the interactive narration of the novel worked well with the storyline, occasionally the narrator would be too inquisitive, asking too many rhetorical questions. It sometimes felt like these questions interfered with the flow of the story. Once in a while, the use of questions would be effective, but the more the author used it, the more repetitive it became.

One of Mandel’s strengths as a writer is her ability to drop clues in the plot that connect each of the stories together. Sometimes, the characters say these details so nonchalantly that it feels as though the clue or detail is not as significant to the plot as it is. 

But this subtlety causes the reader to analyze each passage even more carefully, ensuring that subtle clues don’t slip by that indicate why the strange events are occurring or why these separate stories of people living in different ages are being told together. It causes Sea of Tranquility to capture your attention with every page. 

April 10, 2022

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