Sea of Tranquility

Recommendation: This is a fine example of both pandemic and science fiction, which may seem like an odd combination but it works

Where to read: The Indian Ocean Dipole is apparently negative again so we will have plenty of rainy days ahead perfect for reading

Read with: New York Breakfast

In brief: Sea of Tranquillity is not really about pandemics, but the uncertainty and unreality of the COVID-19 experience underpins the novel and several of the key plot points. It would be more accurate to call it a meditation on loss, grief and meaning, facilitated by illness and time travelling.

I will be honest – my initial impression of this book was not favourable and that was entirely the fault of the typeface. Size 14/16 font is generally used in children’s or accessible publishing (justified) or to inflate a novella into a novel by giving the impression that a book is much longer and more substantive than it really is (unjustified). I for one have an objection to paying for a 350 page novel when I am only getting 100 pages worth of content.

Sea of Tranquillity is indeed a slim tome, but it covers a lot of ground. Traversing a period of around 500 years, from Canada in 1912 to the second moon colony in the 2400s, Mandel’s narrative touches on the passage and nature of time, grief, memory, finding meaning in life and the possibility that we are all a Matrix-like simulation. I say ‘touches on’ because this is more an invitation to consider rather than a substantive examination. The main point, certainly the most developed, seems to be that we have, and have always had, a tendency to imagine the end of the world is imminent and that, in fact, someone’s world is always ending. Mandel focuses on periods of time where world-altering events are indeed just around the corner, from the halcyon days before WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic, to the first months of 2020 and the days before a SARS pandemic strikes in 2203. As we see, history continues on its merry way, even as characters drop in and out and civilisation repeatedly declares its impending demise.

Mandel has an interesting approach to characterisation here, often bordering on caricature. Edwin St. John St. Andrew, the supercilious second son of an aristocratic English family, is both an immediately recognisable trope and fairly disposable. Similarly, Mirella Kessler (the main figure in 2020) is more narrative vehicle than fully fleshed person. Indeed, there only two characters who, for lack of a better phrase, actually matter. Olive Llewellyn is a young author living in 2203 spruiking a pandemic-themed novel just as an actual pandemic is breaking out. Her sections are some of the longest and she is by far the most fleshed out and sympathetic character. Given she is basically a stand in for Mandel, this is probably unsurprising and while the novel is not generally what I would call funny, there are some chuckles to be had in Olive’s (read Mandel’s) gripes about critics. The other significant figure is Gaspery-Jacques, the time traveller attempting to get to the bottom of a mysterious glitch who appears in various guises in each era.

It should also be said that nothing about the “speculative fiction” in Sea of Tranquillity is particularly original. Indeed, its readability relies on the audience’s pre-existing knowledge and familiarity with sci-fi conventions. Time portals and anomalies, Perspex-domed moon colonies, time travel and its attendant paradoxes and moral dilemmas, sinister scientific organisations, climate change and the rise of China are all part of the largely unexplored backdrop to Mandel’s more intimate narrative, and it is taken for granted that no explanation is required. A shared COVID experience is similarly assumed – she comments on the incongruity of “business as normal” when surrounded by a deadly disease and the quirks of life in lockdown in a way that will be familiar to many readers (there is a rueful chuckle to be had about the zombifying effects of endless Zoom calls) but it is far from a comprehensive account of a pandemic’s effect on society.

None of this is necessarily intended as a criticism – this is not trying to be Cloud Atlas or Foundation or The Plague – and it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I breezed through it in an afternoon with a few cups of tea, carried along by lovely descriptive passages and a gently mournful tone. The true joy is Mandel’s writing and gift for imagery, and her light touch approach to plot, setting and characters allows this to shine.

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