Emily St. John Mandel, the acclaimed author of “Station Eleven” and “The Glass Hotel,” likes to jump around chronologically in her novels. She takes this conceit all the way in “Sea of Tranquility,” a winsome time-travel thriller in which a secretive organization in the 23rd century tries to solve a disturbing anomaly that stretches 400 years along the time continuum.
In 2403, time travel has been discovered, and quickly banned, and is now under the strict control of the Time Institute, which constantly scans the past for intruders (facial recognition software is a help). After all, as one character notes, “What is time travel if not a security problem?”
There is a Republic of Texas, which makes sense, and an Atlantic Republic, which is more surprising. The sky above Central Park is “crowded with low-altitude airships,” and Earth’s three moon colonies have artificial rivers for the inhabitants’ mental health. (“Sea of Tranquility” takes its title from the “sea” on the moon near where Apollo 11 landed.) Further, “Holographic meetings had once been hailed as the way of the future…but the unreality was painfully flat.” Yes, the future has people complaining about Zoom meetings.
The first dot of time we land on is a logging camp on Vancouver Island in 1912, before the Great War. Edwin St. Andrew is a lay about, “exiled” from England for hotheadedness. He’s precocious, aimless, and missing home. One day he’s looking up into the branches of an old-growth maple tree and has a bizarre, otherworldly sensation of being in a vast space, followed closely by the appearance of a strange priest, someone who will be popping up in different timelines and various guises throughout.
Mirella is a woman in New York City in early 2020, trying to track down her estranged friend, Vincent. (Readers of “The Glass Hotel” may recognize these two characters.) Searching for a lead, she attends a pretentious performance by Vincent’s step-brother Paul — a man “famous in an extremely limited, niche kind of way” — featuring a video of a brief, puzzling occurrence in a Canadian forest. Incidentally, she meets someone anticipating something that will happen in a month or so, and someone Vincent swears she recognizes from childhood.
Gaspery is the not-as-bright brother of scientist Zoey, who does something important and secret for the Time Institute. After years of training in history, culture, and accents, the Institute sends him, a rather unlikely, sometimes “distressingly inept” investigator, to discern why different people at different places in time and space encounter the same bizarre experience.
Gaspery, well-meaning but decidedly not brilliant (he can never master the accents) is an interesting choice for a catalyst, and his character development is satisfying. Mandel also draws an affecting portrait of Edwin, who goes from hale and headstrong to becoming a traumatized veteran of the First World War.
But the most affecting timeline is in 2202, when a novelist on a book tour is unwittingly approaching another dire turn in history. Olive Llewellyn lives on a moon colony but has come to Earth to promote her novel “Marienbad,” about a pandemic. (Mandel has a thing for pandemics; her acclaimed novel “Station Eleven,” which was adapted into an HBO miniseries, was about a civilization-ending pandemic, and she began writing “Sea” in March 2020 at the heart of the pandemic in Brooklyn.)
Olive’s story in particular is suffused with a luminous melancholy, showing Mandel’s flair at conjuring up the essential contingency of life. Olive is a stand-in for Mandel, who apparently suffered bad experiences on her own book tours, although she was chatty and cheery when I saw her speak about her pandemic novel “Station Eleven” — a year before China gave us a taste of the real thing.
“Sea’s” emotional high points also involve travel and the wan comforts Olive feels while on the road (or in a hovercraft), in those liminal spaces where a loyal suitcase can be “almost a friend,” and where missing her family means “every hotel was emptier than the one before.” Meanwhile, news of an actual virus is spreading.
At the last interview stop on the tour, the exhausted author meets a strange character from (wink) “Contingency Magazine,” who asks her if she once “experienced something strange in the Oklahoma City Airship Terminal,” and then poses a supposed fun hypothetical question with fateful import.
Your reviewer got a sense, maybe unintended by the author, of characters destined to be in certain places at certain times: An unambitious person suddenly craves a high-risk job; another hangs around in an unpromising spot as if waiting for something to happen. But besides those scattered, perhaps phantom dots of fate, “Sea” has the frightening, exciting feel of a fragile universe.
One could get dizzy pondering the questions raised by the Time Institute, such as why holes in the space-time continuum are smoothly knitted over instead of tearing the universe apart. Could that be a clue we are living in a simulation? If so, how could we know for sure? Would that knowledge make our lives any less “real”? One character, who grew up on a moon colony, sees it this way: “I’ve always loved rain, and knowing that it isn’t coming from clouds doesn’t make me love it less.”
Mandel is a natural at non-linear storytelling, a literary author who eschews slippery, evasive sentences. She proves that getting to the point is not a sign of shallowness or pandering.
“Sea” ends with a strange sort of, yes, tranquility, as everything clicks into place in a satisfying fashion. One can imagine a lot of index cards and string went into making the plotting both complex and easy to follow. The time stamps on the chapters are a godsend for those easily confused by time travel stories, i.e. me.
“Sea” is melancholy without being mournful. “Imagine thinking civilization would still exist in ten thousand years,” thinks one character pessimistically, but taken in full the novel is optimistic. Humans are still around and pushing forward, suffering disease and climate problems and hardship but remaining resilient, as always.