Every novelist is in the business of managing cliché and the unreal. The first is necessary for a work to have some degree of universal appeal, the second because fiction is never a strictly documentary art. Realism itself is a way of managing invention, of deviating from and shaping real materials in the service of creating something original. But the wrong proportions of cliché and the unreal threaten to derail any narrative.
Emily St John Mandel came to fame as the author of Station Eleven (2014). Recently adapted as an HBO series, it follows the survivors of a swine flu pandemic — members of a travelling theatre troupe in the Great Lakes region — a couple of decades after the virus has wiped out most of humanity, giving rise to subsistence settlements and religious cults. Mandel’s new novel, Sea of Tranquility, revisits the pandemic theme and spreads the action across several centuries.
In a few ways it is an unbearably trendy book. Since David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, there has been a vogue for books split across narratives in multiple centuries, usually some combination of past, present and future. Any of these elements may adhere to actual history and the recognisable present or veer into alternative versions of time. Recent examples in the genre include Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Usually an implied message of such narratives, which tend to mix in similarly named or blood-related characters separated by generations, is that human nature or the character of certain exceptional humans persists across time as echoes of meaning.
In Sea of Tranquility, a few characters who appear in different centuries share certain qualities because they turn out to be the same person: a time traveller from the 25th century called Gaspery-Jacques Roberts. He has been hired by the Time Institute to investigate instances of similar hallucinations, all involving a vision of a forest and violin music recorded in different centuries: in a personal letter from the 20th, in an experimental film from the 21st and in a novel from the 22nd. Why would these minor hallucinations attract scrutiny, or even notice? According to the Institute’s experts, they may indicate that human life is a mere simulation.
Despite five years of training and the imperative of strict adherence to non-interference protocols when travelling through the past — lest the timeline be corrupted and the future distorted — Gaspery takes the first opportunity to break the rules and warn someone in the past of her impending death. Like most of the characters in the novel, his signal psychological trait is a plaintive sentimentality. He informs the 23rd-century novelist Olive Llewellyn that she’ll die from a new strain of Sars spreading from New Zealand if she doesn’t abandon her book tour and return to her home on a moon colony and commence lockdown.
There is a lot about pandemics in Sea of Tranquility. Olive is the author of a novel called Marienbad about a plague, and she delivers lectures on the history of contagion. Another character dies in the flu pandemic of 1918. None of this material surpasses the level of detail one might glean from Wikipedia; and as for emotional insight, there’s nothing beyond concern for loved ones and the fear of a premature and senseless death. Olive’s lockdown is an occasion for family time, reactive recreation and a few wistful memories of intercontinental book promotion.
Not that the other people we meet in Sea of Tranquility are more interesting. Edwin, an Englishman setting out for British Columbia in 1912, is an Old Etonian lush with vague aspirations of reinventing himself as a gentleman farmer. His notional anti-colonial politics don’t obstruct his desultory participation in the project of frontier settlement, and his arrival in North America occasions little aside from declarations about the beauty of the landscape and of indigenous women’s ways of speaking. A section set in 2020 in the realm of New York City art film is superficial to the point of touristic. It’s no revelation that industry parties can be quite tedious.
The future passages of Mandel’s novel are similarly underimagined. There are airships, domed cities, moon settlements with variously effective sunlight management systems, and much fretting about the consequences of time travel — nothing we haven’t seen before in Star Trek, Quantum Leap, The Matrix or the writings of Ray Bradbury, all far richer texts. Why write science fiction at all merely to rehash the genre’s most tired and obvious tropes? The twist in this novel is, predictably, a recursive trick we’ve seen before.
The goal of any multi-century global and inter-celestial epic is, I suppose, to be a book that takes in a little of everything and astonishes the reader with connections that lead to discoveries that neither history nor science nor more conventional fiction can deliver. Instead, Sea of Tranquility is a book where every new element subtracts from the reader’s experience. The characters are simplistic, the dialogue flat, the descriptive passages exercises either in gauzy wonder at nature or dreary despair about the dehumanised technoscape. A book like Sea of Tranquility is a sign of a genre’s exhaustion.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel, Picador £14.99/Knopf $25, 272 pages
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