If my book club hadn’t settled on Sea of Tranquility for our next read, I don’t think I would have read it, not because I haven’t liked the other novels I’ve read by Emily St. John Mandel, because I’ve liked them just fine (Station Eleven more than The Glass Hotel, though), but because the premise didn’t really pique my interest and I’m having enough trouble sticking with books without deliberately choosing ones that don’t sound like my kind of thing. And yet I enjoyed it quite a lot—much more than Free Love, which I had expected would be exactly my kind of thing, and much more than Free Food For Millionaires, which I abandoned after about 50 pages.
Mandel is very good at scene setting, and one nice thing about Sea of Tranquility is that, because it takes place in several different times and places, she gets to show off that skill. Books that shift our attention around like this can be jarring, but she’s also good at pacing, so for me anyway, the journey from 1912 to 2401, and the stops in between, and then the returns, felt pleasantly seamless, like a literary version of the airships she imagines whooshing people around in the future. By the end, however, I thought the story she told was kind of thin: though I was consistently interested in the people and scenarios she set up, I felt much as I did at the end of The Glass Hotel—that, to borrow Henry James’s (extremely incorrect!) verdict on Middlemarch, the novel is a treasure house of details but an indifferent whole.
There’s real cleverness to the novel’s time-travel plot (though I don’t think these can ever be completely convincing), and a poignancy to the human story threaded through it, and the ongoing theme of pandemics created both menace in the moment and resonance for our moment. Maybe all of these things, done as well as they are, should be enough, but I am always looking, when I read a novel, for a sense of growing excitement about meaning, and I don’t think Sea of Tranquility delivers on that front. The big idea at the heart of it is what it would mean if we discovered we were living, not in reality, but in a simulation. What difference would or should that make to us? Would our experiences be any less real? Gaspery, the novel’s protagonist (more or less), concludes that the “correct response” to the news that we’re living in a simulation would be “So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.” I suppose that’s true, but it also seems to oversimplify the potential philosophical issues—not that I know anything about them myself, but I have lived in close proximity to a professional philosopher for long enough to be sure that the implications of the “simulation hypothesis” are more complex than Gaspery supposes or Sea of Tranquility explores.
The other key idea in Sea of Tranquility seems to be “if you have the chance to save someone’s life, you should do it, rules or consequences be damned.” This hardly seems like a big idea—in fact, it seems trite, a point hardly worth making, a choice so obvious it hardly counts as heroism . . . except that for Gaspery, the rules are made by vast and powerful institutions and the consequences are literally historic. Does that make the “right” choice any less obvious? A different novelist, or a different kind of novel, would have made more of this, of how we weigh the kindness to others that defines our humanity against our own needs and vulnerabilities, and also against larger goals and values that might be incompatible with it and yet still, possibly, worth serving. “We should be kind,” the poem goes, “while there is still time,” but Mandel pits kindness against time (you’ll understand if you read the novel) and again, I think figuring out what to do might be more complicated than the novel suggests, if you let it be. Yet I liked the absolute clarity of Gaspery’s choice: for him, there’s no question at all.
In the variety of its imagined worlds, Sea of Tranquility reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas, although it has been so long since I read Cloud Atlas that I can’t really be sure if that’s a fair comparison. Mandel doesn’t have Mitchell’s ambition: Sea of Tranquility is all in more or less the same style, for example, whereas Cloud Atlas (IIRC) is a virtuosic sampler of different kinds of fiction, some of which I remember not enjoying at all. Mandel’s novel is easily readable; it’s clever and a bit tricksy, but not so in love with its tricks that it lost me.