I love a good time travel book. I wasn’t sure this was going to be one of those, but it eventually won me over. Emily St. John Mandel has followed up two best sellers – the 2014 post-apocalyptic dystopian sf novel Station Eleven and 2020’s crime thriller The Glass Hotel – with a best selling speculative fiction novel that explores two currently popular sf tropes, time travel anomalies and the simulation theory.
Sea of Tranquility begins in a slightly disjointed fashion, such that I wasn’t sure whose story it was for quite some time. (That’s by design, I’m sure.) There’s young Edwin St. Andrew, the third son of an English lord, who goes off to the wilds of America in the early years of the 20th century, seeking relief from his boredom and aimlessness, supported by monthly “remittances” from dear Papa. There’s a young American woman named Mirella in New York in 2020, looking for answers about the life and death of her former best friend Vincent, whose husband committed suicide after his Ponzi scheme fell apart and impoverished all their friends including Mirella. There’s the novelist Olive Llewellyn, who lives in an established colony on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility in 2200, suffering her way through a grueling book tour on Earth. And there’s Gaspery Roberts who grew up on the Moon about 200 years after Olive wrote her best-seller, which was Gaspery’s mother’s favorite book. He grew up in poverty in the now run-down original lunar settlement, and at the moment he is working as a hotel security agent in a newer domed colony but, like Edwin St. Andrew some 400 years earlier, Gaspery is just spinning his wheels.
It turns out that all of these characters have something in common, and it’s Gaspery who gets sent back in time to investigate it.
Yes, by 2400 CE humanity has invented a means of time travel. It’s operated by a small and secretive bureaucracy on the Moon called the Time Institute, and Gaspery’s much more driven sister Zoey works there. What they mostly do is keep an eye out for and try to repair anomalies created by other time travelers who have mucked about with the time line through carelessness or malice or whatever other motives. Or sometimes, well, by their own time agents.
What the other characters have in common is an experience. All, at some point in their lives, have been struck by a brief anomaly: everything goes dark, they hear some music and a loud mechanical whoosh, and then everything returns to normal – except them. Zoey and others at the Time Institute wonder whether this occurrence is evidence that we’re all living in some kind of a simulation. Think The Matrix without the black slickers and the holding tanks and the dodging bullets and stuff.
Against Zoey’s wishes Gaspery signs on to the Institute, and after years of training is sent back to investigate this anomaly. The decisions he makes and actions he takes while on his mission will have grave consequences for him, and could also gravely affect the Institute and humanity’s future.
For much of the book, the only character I liked very much was Olive, the author. She’s literate and wry, and she’s a good person making the best of the ultimate weird situation of a worldwide book tour, which is taking place just as Earth could be facing yet another global pandemic. But in the final few chapters Gaspery’s character and personality come into focus as he takes a series of unexpected actions. Things start to make sense, and Mandel wraps her story up in a quite satisfying and unexpected manner. I ended up having much warmer feelings about Sea of Tranquility than I expected to.