Book Review:  Sea of Tranquility: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility is marketed as a mainstream novel but it is in fact science fiction. It is a story of time travel and human colonies on the moon, on other planets and moons in the solar system, and on nearby solar systems. It concerns a particular anomaly under investigation by an elite, malevolent Time Institute that ostensibly imposes harsh rules to prevent dangerous paradoxes but in fact is cruel towards its employees in a cold bureaucratic power-hungry sort of way.

Mandel begins her tale on Vancouver Island in British Columbia in 1912, where she first introduces the anomaly, skips forward to an artistic demonstration in 2020, where the anomaly is again revealed, jumps forward again to a book tour in 2203, in which the novel the author is promoting contains glimpses of the anomaly, and finally moves to 2401, the era of the Time Institute. Mandel then progressively backtracks to sew together the different pieces of the story and show how they are all interrelated.

It is a very entertaining story told in a sparse, easy to read style. It is also quite short in comparison to other science fiction tales on similar themes, not much more than novella length after accounting for the numerous blank pages and chapters consisting of only a few sentences. It does not bring any new ideas to the genre, but that’s fairly standard nowadays. Almost all of modern science fiction and fantasy consists of riffs from tropes and ideas first presented in the pulp era of the early and mid-twentieth century. In fact, the definitive time travel paradox stories by which most others are judged were “By His Bootstraps” (1941) and “All You Zombies” (1958), both written by the late great Robert A. Heinlein.

Sea of Tranquility is a worthy addition to the genre. It is fun and entertaining, and the characters are fairly well fleshed-out. It is also topical and relevant to our era in that in one of the timelines a solar-system-wide pandemic is a major plot point.

I recommend this novel. It’s a good book. It is another indication of the absorption of genre literature into the mainstream. I notice, in fact, when I go to the library and peruse the “peak pick” shelves (popular new books that are available without reservation for shorter borrowing periods) that a large percentage of best-selling novels have science fiction and fantasy elements. It made me wonder why one book and not another receives a genre label. Clearly it has nothing to do with content or quality, because I know of many high-quality novels that remain marginalized because of their designations as genre literature. My own preference would be to strip away all such arbitrary labels in fiction and let each book rise or fall on its own unique merits, but that’s probably not going to happen because of the vagaries and strictures of marketing, listings, awards, and so on. Still, this modern trend is an indication that writers can be freer to let loose and sail the winds of imagination wherever they might lead, and that is certainly a good thing.

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