The trope of time travel gained popularity in Western literature during the eighteenth century and accelerated in the nineteenth, reflecting a period of rapid innovation and a corresponding faith in linear progress over cyclical tradition. But a genre born of change can illuminate periods of stasis, too, not least the past two years of the global pandemic. As has frequently been remarked, time during this era has assumed new configurations.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility exemplifies this notion, representing our peculiar present through a multitemporal lens. This is Mandel’s first novel to be specifically concerned with time travel, though her previous books have played with narrative chronology and hinted that their narratives are part of a broader fictional multiverse: characters recur in different books, sometimes with different fates. Part of Sea of Tranquility is set during a pandemic in the twenty-third century, and features an author, Olive Llewellyn, who lives in a colony on the moon. Despite being separated in time and space, Olive and Mandel share obvious similarities. Olive’s breakout novel, Marienbad, imagines a future pandemic, triggered by “a scientifically implausible flu”; it becomes a bestseller and then a film. She is on a tour promoting both when an actual pandemic arises, forcing her to shelter in place and reflecting on the proceedings. Similarly, Mandel’s breakout novel about a future global pandemic, Station Eleven (2014), returned to bestseller lists during 2020 and was adapted into a marvelous television series that premiered in 2021. Through the future Olive, Mandel comments on the ironies of being an inadvertent Cassandra, as well as on the “strange lesson of living in a pandemic: life can be tranquil in the face of death”.
In the midst of lockdown 2203, Olive is asked what she is working on. “I’m writing this crazy sci-fi thing”, she replies. “I don’t know much about it myself, to be honest… It’s actually kind of deranged.” The interviewer responds tactfully: “I suppose anything written this year was likely to be deranged.” Mandel’s novel is anything but. Sea of Tranquility It is witty, insightful, moving and meticulously plotted – a requirement of time-travel narratives for the avoidance of paradox, and a skill Mandel has demonstrated throughout her oeuvre. Her fictions routinely make use of interweaving plot strands and time periods, and culminate in convincing resolutions. These careful “webwork” structures also encapsulate an abiding thematic concern with the precarious nature of reality. How, Mandel asks, can one determine and pursue what is genuinely meaningful in life while being confronted by tempting compromises, unavoidable necessities and constant change?
Sea of Tranquility intertwines the lives of three characters from different time periods, all of whom experience the same inexplicable vision. In 1912, Edwin St. John St. Andrew, the callow youngest son of an English Aristocrat, travels to Canada to seek his fortune. He ends up in the tiny settlement of Caiette, “the lightest sketch of civilizations, caught between the forest and the sea”, a liminal reality that unmoors him. This is exacerbated by a perturbing sensory event: Edwin is momentarily plunged into darkness, hears violin music, sees other people, and perceives an “incomprehensible sound”. In 2195, Olive has the same strange experience, which she incorporates into Marienbad.
That book will have a decisive impact on the life of Gaspery Roberts, a young man living on a moon colony at the turn of the twenty-fifth century. His mother named him after a “peripheral character” in Olive’s novel, and when we first meet him he seems peripheral even to himself. Gaspery joins the Time Institute, which polices the integrity of the time stream. Researchers there are intrigued by these identical visions from across time. Some believe they will confirm a popular theory that existence is a simulation: the visions could be glitches in the underlying program. Gaspery is sent back through time to investigate each incidence, with a stern injunction to remain detached and avoid changing the past. This mission enables him to pursue the question that is Mandel’s thematic lodestar – “But what makes a world real?” – and to follow his own moral compass, transforming him from a peripheral character into an unusual protagonist.
Mandel’s characters ponder the nature of reality, agreeing on its mutability and evanescence. Olive tersely presents apocalypse as the norm rather than the exception: “You wake up married, then your spouse dies over the course of the day; you wake in peacetime and by noon your country is at war; you wake in ignorance and by evening it’s clear that a pandemic is already here”. She suspects that virtual meetings are so exhausting because the space isn’t “real”, and wonders what distinguishes the genuine from the artificial. Reality, she asserts, is something tangible, whether natural or synthetic: “Everything that can be touched is real”. Gaspery, however, seems more easily to accept virtual reality. He is cheerfully unconcerned about simulation theory: if it were proved true, “the correct response to that news will be so what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.
However “reality” is defined, in Mandel’s novels acts of compassion, courage and creativity speak louder than words. These traits remain lifelines amidst the flux of existence. If “the end of the world [is] a continuous and never-ending process”, as Olive maintains, then Gaspery provides the appropriate response when he refuses to accept the Time Institute’s callous contention that history’s current is immutable: “If someone’s about to drown, you have a duty to pull them from the water.” Gaspery’s empathetic acts in the face of bureaucratic indifference change lives for the better – a timeless message, of course, but also a timely one.
Michael Saler is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. He is writing a history of the interplay between reason and imagination in modernity
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