About time: Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility (Canada / the future / space)

Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility, Picador 2022

First line: Edwin St. John St. Andrew, eighteen years old, hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic by steamship, eyes narrowed against the wind on the upper deck: he holds the railing with gloved hands, impatient for a glimpse of the unknown, trying to discern something — anything! — beyond sea and sky, but all he sees are shades of endless grey.

I was going to wait for Sea of Tranquility to come out in paperback, but cracked just ahead of the ‘Platy Jubes’ weekend. By the time the Queen had given her final wave from the Buckingham Palace balcony, I’d read it twice: the first time romping through, the second time savouring the writing, story and sheer inventiveness of it all.

In 1912, disgraced minor aristocrat Edwin St. Andrew experiences what he thinks is a hallucination. For a split second, in a remote forest on Vancouver Island, he’s plunged into darkness, then senses a cavernous space and the sound of a violin. In 2203, a novel by Moon Colony Two dweller Olive Llewellyn includes a passage in which a man plays the violin in an airship terminal while trees rise around him. And in 2401, an era when time travel is a crime, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is sent to investigate a space-time anomaly caught on film in 1994 — which features notes from a violin. It’s the start of his sleuthing at various moments in time…

This genre-bending fusion of crime and science fiction — cri-sci-fi? — is pulled off with tremendous style. The first scene-setting chapters build steadily, and around a third of the way through the novel really catches fire. The resolution to the mystery is like a finely crafted Chinese puzzle and well worth the wait.

And because this is Emily St. John Mandel, author of the highly acclaimed Station Eleven, there’s much more besides: very human, likeable characters; visions of a future world and what it means to survive a pandemic; questions about the nature of reality and what truly matters in life; and an exploration of institutional power and the price of taking it on. But there’s also plenty of wry humour, including a laugh-out-loud bit  featuring Marvin the cat.

If you too have a weakness for cri-sci-fi, then put Sea of Tranquility on your reading list right away. And if you’re looking for other science fiction novels with strong elements of crime, check out my past reviews below:

Welcome to the silo: Hugh Howey’s Wool

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders

Smörgåsbord: Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon

10 thoughts on “About time: Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility (Canada / the future / space)

  1. It’s funny, Mrs. P. I don’t usually go for sci-fi and time travel in my reading. That said, though, this sounds absolutely fascinating, and with well-developed characters (which, to me, is the most important thing). It’s a really fascinating premise, too: solving crimes in different time periods. Hmm…. I’m very glad you enjoyed it as well as you did, and now I find myself a bit intrigued…

    • I’m glad you’re a bit intrigued, Margot 🙂 Tbh, I would read anything by this author, because she’s such a gifted writer and has an incredible imagination. Station Eleven will probably stay my favourite, because it was the first of hers I read (and her breakout novel). I read it before the pandemic, which was strangely helpful… Hope it lands in your lap at some point!

  2. Ok I’m sold. I have also been holding off – Station Eleven is one of my favourite books ever, but I was ever so slightly underwhelmed by The Glass Hotel (however much I wanted to like it). I understand some character reappear from TGH? Sounds like this is one for that most important reading list of the year – the Summer Holiday (abroad! finally!)
    And Mrs P have you read the WG Sebald biography by Carole Angier? I’ve just finished it and found it fascinating. I’m still a WGS newbie, so I have left the 100+ pages of footnotes till after I re-read the books (and the 1 I haven’t read yet) – as I may understand them then …

    • Hi Jo! I was just saying to Margot (above) that Station Eleven will probably remain my favourite one of her works, because it was just so mind-blowing and beautifully written. This novel tells a slightly ‘smaller’ story (almost inevitably), but is one that feels timely (for example, it reflects on what it’s been like to go through a pandemic – elements that we can all relate to). And I thought the central puzzle/solution was very clever!

      You’re right – a couple of characters do reappear from The Glass Hotel (e.g. Vincent and Mirella), but they play supporting rather than main roles. I haven’t read TGH yet – next on my list (there’s some crime in there after all…)

      I haven’t read the Sebald biography yet either, though I’d heard that it was very good. Onto the list it goes! I had brief contact with Sebald once (I wrote an article on The Emigrants and he sent me a lovely butterfly postcard in acknowledgement). And I saw him in conversation with his translator Anthea Bell – an absolutely fascinating discussion (she said she initially considered chopping up his very long German sentences but decided that wouldn’t work, because they were so integral to his writing style). Giants both!

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