Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility is straight-ahead science fiction but it doesn’t feel like a genre novel. Explaining why will be hard. Science fiction has always avoided clear definition and trying to discern the difference between hardcore genre science fiction and literary science fiction might prove equally elusive. For most readers, it doesn’t even matter.
Sea of Tranquility was both entertaining and well-written. I liked it quite a lot. Many readers at Goodreads loved this short novel and gave the story five stars. However, the story was missing something for me. It lacked the intense impact I get from classic genre science fiction I love, even ones not as well told as Sea of Tranquility.
Most modern science fiction aims to be as dashing as Hans Solo but Sea of Tranquility was as mundane as a computer programmer. I considered that a positive but I have to admit the story had a certain blandness even though it dealt with many big science fictional concepts.
I do not want to tell you about those concepts because the way Mandel rolls them out makes it fun to explore the plot clue by clue. If you don’t want to read the novel but want to know a precise summary, Wikipedia has a blow-by-blow overview. However, I do want to tell you enough to want to read it. In the year 2401 Gaspery-Jacques learns about three anomalies in history. In the years 1912 a man named Edwin, in 2020 a woman named Mirella, and in 2203 a woman named Olive had the same bizarre experience that they’ve recorded in various ways in their own times. Historians in the 25th century find those records and decide they might be clues to an amazing hypothesis. Gaspery-Jacques decides he wants to be the person that solves the mystery even though he’s only an uneducated house detective for a hotel in a colony on the Moon. Lucky for Gaspery-Jacques, his sister is a brilliant scientist with connections.
BEWARE – Spoilers Ahead
To get into my discussion of mainstream science fiction versus genre science fiction will require giving away the story. The structure of Sea of Tranquility is much like another mainstream science fiction novel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas was far richer and more intense than Sea of Tranquility, more like a genre novel. Both deal with epic concepts, but only Cloud Atlas felt epic in the storytelling. Mandel gives us a much quieter story and that’s often a trait of mainstream science fiction. Its tone is like two other recent mainstream science fiction novels, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.
Sea of Tranquility explores the idea that our reality is a simulation. In the 25th century, scientists have a very carefully controlled type of time travel. They theorize the anomalies experienced by Edwin, Mirella, and Olive might be glitches in the simulation software. After five years of training, they send Gaspery-Jacques back to interview each of these people. We don’t know that right away, because Mandel at first tells each of their stories chronologically in time. I’m thinking of reading the book again to see if knowing that they are being interviewed by a time traveler changes how I experience the story. I guessed this might be happening because loose-lips by some reviewers said the book is a time travel novel. It would have been more fun not knowing that.
That’s another difference between mainstream science fiction and genre science fiction. Their stories often begin ordinarily and feel mundane and the science-fictional concepts creep into the tale. Genre science fiction often begins like the opening of a heavy metal concert, while mainstream science fiction begins with a quiet chamber quartet before a cerebral symphony.
Genre science fiction writers love to crank the volume to 11 and keep it there, while mainstream science fiction unfolds gently at volume 4 and politely increases to 6 or 7 at carefully chosen moments. If you compare Hyperion by Dan Simmons to Sea of Tranquility you’ll know what I mean.
Sea of Tranquility is science fiction for PBS Masterpiece. Station Eleven was Mandel’s polar opposite of Mad Max: Fury Road. Even though Sea of Tranquility explores such a deafening concept as the simulation hypothesis it does so in a whisper. A genre novelist writing the same story would have had epic rents in the fabric of reality, killing millions while its heroes save the universe at the last minute. Mandel’s hero eerily validates the hypothesis with a kind of “Ummm, that’s weird.”
Sea of Tranquility is also a pandemic novel about a writer writing a novel about a pandemic just before a pandemic hits. Olive Llewellyn is a novelist who lives on the Moon but tells of her publicity tour on Earth just before a brutal plague spreads across Earth in 2203. I assume Olive’s details and feelings about promoting a book came from Mandel’s own experience. Some of the characters in this novel were in Mandel’s previous novel, The Glass Hotel, and Edwin’s full name is Edwin St. John St. Andrew. Since he shares a middle name with Mandel I have to wonder if he was an ancestor of hers? Now I have to read The Glass Hotel. One of my favorite writers, Larry McMurty liked to recycle characters in other novels.
Finally, I wonder if fans of science fiction by Margaret Atwood, Hilary St. John Mandel, or Kazuo Ishiguro would also be fans of Dan Simmons, Iain M. Banks, and James S. A. Corey? Or vice versa? Let me know how you feel.
James Wallace Harris, 7/4/22