By far my favorite Emily St. John Mandel.
There's an inherent meta quality to this novel that makes it feel different from the rest of her work. In the wake of the popularity of Station Eleven and then the follow-up, The Glass Hotel, which was perhaps more divisive among readers, this book was more of an examination of how the author is coping with writing a book about a deadly pandemic just a few years before an actual deadly pandemic hits and having that book become not just successful, but almost oppressively so.
St. John Mandel's followup, The Glass Hotel, was, in a lot of ways, a more interesting book to me. More of a contemplative piece about greed, human nature and the difficult of just existing. Not to say Station Eleven wasn't about those things as well, but there are readers who see things through different lenses, not that of theme but tropes.
There were readers disappointed that The Glass Hotel wasn't another post-apocalyptic book, that it wasn't giving them a similar story, if not a follow-up. As an author, it's difficult to not internalize these things.
Certain ‘spoilers' follow.
Sea of Tranquility features a prominent author, Olive, in the future who wrote a book about a deadly pandemic and was on a book tour promoting said book because of an upcoming film adaptation of it, while a deadly pandemic was blossoming in a part of the planet. This author lives in a colony on the moon and spends ample time throughout her sections feeling dislodged from reality while traveling from hotel to hotel.
Hotels play a big role in St. John Mandel's work here, huh?
There are gonna be folks that label Sea of Tranquility as a time travel novel, which is perhaps fine. There is time travel elements involved here, namely a character named Gaspery who worked as a hotel security guard (cough) until his sister, an agent at the Time Institute (the same Time Institute that the author stand-in's husband was helping design) who has a theory that certain glitches appearing in different points in history prove simulation theory, where they are living in a computer simulation. It was something Zooey and Gaspery's mother deeply believed. I should note that Gaspery is named after a character from Olive's work.
Gaspery isn't introduced as a point of view character until the second half of the book, with him appearing throughout the first half as a strange figure to the different characters, including Edwin St. Andrew, a British expat in Canada after going on a tirade about the ill-effects of colonialism and his family essentially kicking him to the curb. He has a hallucination in the woods in Caiette. Yes, that Caiette, where Vincent from the Glass Hotel, filmed a video her brother used for a visual art piece, including a strange “glitch.”
Gaspery appears to Andrew masquerading a priest, asking him about what he saw in the woods.
Gaspery also appears as an interviewer with Olive when she's on her book tour, meets with Vincent's brother and old friend and we're all sort of in a churn here with the characters from The Glass Hotel.
The first half of the book establishes the importance of The Glass Hotel and its cast of characters, as well as Olive and her Station Eleven-ish work, on top of her mounting fear of the encroaching pandemic. All throughout, we see Gaspery and it's unclear as to why.
When we find out later he's a time traveler tasked with uncovering the mystery of these glitches, including interviewing a violinist in a futuristic Oklahoma City airship terminal, that same violin music present in each instance of someone encountering the “glitch,” things get more complicated.
Gaspery's job is to gather data and investigate, not interfere. But he does. Because his humanity won't let him meet with Olive and know the pandemic will kill her days later, or Andrew, depressed after his time at war, meets his own untimely demise. This causes a ripple effect where the Time Institute frames him for a murder in the past, sends him to prison to rot, but his sister instead gets him to somewhere he'll be safe... where, and this is all a spoiler or whatnot, he becomes the old man violinist with a surgically altered face so the Time Institute won't find him.
It's not a simulation, it's just Gaspery intersecting with himself in time multiple times over in the same place.
But that's just the plot, right? What's interesting to me is what this all means.
I've read other reviews that are disappointed with St. John Mandel's return to talking about a pandemic, which is ironic considering The Glass Hotel received a lot of praise, but also a lot of criticism for not following in Station Eleven's footsteps. In a way, it almost proves the exact point of this book. Actually, it does.
What does it mean to be an artist who has always existed within their own space, allowed to work as they wish and create different kinds of work, only to become successful and suddenly people want more of the same from you? There are passages where Olive is running through criticisms of her books in her head that come from readers, critics and interviewers, about how her endings aren't impactful enough, or how certain characters don't meet certain expectations, or how certain tropes weren't present and so on. She's on a book tour for a book that she wrote a while ago, only popular again because of a film adaptation (cough Station Eleven on HBO cough) and, well... you get the picture.
Many of the “problems” readers expressed with The Glass Hotel were revisited here, although key mysteries (like what happened to Vincent) are never addressed (thankfully!). This was an entire work about the literal impact of fictional characters on the real world, about the inability to change the past and the conflicts an artist creates for themselves throughout their career.
... written during a pandemic by an author who studied pandemics to write a very popular novel about a pandemic.
An author who feels like she's from the fucking moon, witnessing people make the same mistakes from history and feels powerless to make any sort of positive impact on anyone because people are nitpicking not the stuff that matters to her about her work; the characters, the themes and the messaging, but the surface level.
I love it.