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Review: Sea of Tranquility

Updated: May 19

2/5 stars

Oh, Emily. How I adored Station Eleven - which I just read for a second time last year, and loved just as much if not more than my first reading in 2017. So, maybe my standards are set too high. I didn't love The Glass Hotel, her 2020 novel, and now some of those characters, confusingly, make an appearance in her new sci-fi novel. They didn't need to, but they do.

The narrative ranges from Vancouver Island in 1912, to a colony on the moon in 2401, from Edwin, a restless young Brit exploring the Canadian wilderness, to Olive, a famous writer from the moon on a book tour back on earth, to Gaspary, a time-traveling detective investigating an anomaly in the same place but multiple different times. The characters all felt thin to me. I didn't care much about any of them. Could be that the third-person narrative that Mandel uses made it more difficult to connect.

As in Station Eleven, and The Glass Hotel, Mandel introduces many seemingly disparate characters, only to later weave their storylines together. For me - successfully in Station Eleven, not so much in the other two.

The plot, you say? Hmm... well, there's that larger "investigating an anomaly" storyline, which crosses all timelines and increasingly takes over the novel, but there's also the pervasive "life as an author of a pandemic novel just before a big pandemic hits." Olive is clearly a stand-in for Mandel's own experiences talking about Station Eleven during COVID-19. It felt gimmicky to me. I think her insights would have been really interesting and relatable if she'd just written a short non-fiction piece about her experiences. Instead, the insertion of her own narrative into the character of Olive felt a little too wink-wink-nudge-nudge, like, "See what I'm doing here? Clever, right?!" Take the following passage (italics added by me for clarity):

"So, I'm guessing I'm not the first person to ask you what it's like to be the author of a pandemic novel during a pandemic," another journalist said.

"You might not be the very first." ...

"What are you working on these days? Are you able to work?"

"I'm writing this crazy sci-fi thing," Olive said.

"Interesting. Can you tell me about it?"

"I don't know much about it myself, to be honest. I don't even know if it's a novel or a novella. It's actually kind of deranged."

"I suppose anything written this year is likely to be deranged," the journalist said, and Olive decided she liker her. "What drew you to sci-fi?" ...

"I've been in lockdown for one hundred and nine days," Olive said. "I think I just wanted to write something set as far away as possible from my apartment."

In my view, Mandel did a much better job of creating an authentic-feeling, post-pandemic world and exploring its physical, emotional, and psychological effects in Station Eleven, before she'd actually experienced a pandemic. That world felt rich and deep and peopled (characters that felt like real people!). The above, and many other passages like it, are just regurgitations of conversations that she - that we all - had in 2020/2021.

I don't think the sci-fi aspects of this novel were particularly innovative. I'm not a huge sci-fi reader, but I've done a bit. Colonies on the moon or other planets, time travel, "glitches in the Matrix," and questions about whether life is all just a simulation... none of it is new. That's not to say those topics/tropes can't still be done well. I just don't think this telling of those stories was convincing.

Also? Don't judge a book by its cover and all that, but blech, this cover is B O R I N G.

However! Here are a couple of passages that I liked enough to underline:

I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we're living at the climax of the story. It's a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we're uniquely important, that we're living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst it's ever been, that finally we have reach the end of the world. But all of this raises the question, What if it always is the end of the world? Because we might reasonably think of the end of the world as a continuous and never-ending process.

My personal belief is that we turn to post-apocalyptic fiction not because we're drawn to disaster, per se, but because we're drawn to what we imagine might come next. We long secretly for a world with less technology in it.

This is the strangest lesson of living in a pandemic: life can be tranquil in the face of death.

Anyway, I read this for book club next week, and I'm eager to hear other opinions.


UP NEXT: The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley, by Sean Lusk

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Samantha Jones
Samantha Jones
Mar 08

Okay now it's working for me because I subscribed! Completely agree with your review. Book was bland. Nothing much seemed to happen...then something happened but it looks less than a few pages. Then more of nothing.


Mar 08

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