Fiction Reviews

Sea of Tranquility

(2022) Emily St. John Mandel, Picador, £9.99, pbk, 258pp, ISBN 978-1-529-08351-4


Wastrel, junior brother and so destined never to inherit his father's land and title, Edwin St. John St. Andrew, is virtually exiled from England to Canada following his expressing radical thoughts not fit for his standing in early 20th century society. However, outside a small settlement in the Canadian wilderness he experiences a brief moment as if he were somewhere else, or in two places at once…

Vincent's husband fled abroad when his investment fund was discovered to be a Ponzi scheme, leaving her behind. But Vincent's brother, a composer, used her video recordings she made as a child as a visual accompaniment to his music. One such video, used in a 2020 performance had an unusual glitch…

In 2203, the author Olive Llewellyn, was visiting Earth from the Moon's Colony 2 domed city, in the Sea of Tranquility, to promote her book that was being re-issued to tie in with a film adaptation. Her husband is an architect and is puzzled by plans that seem to physically, but covertly, link Colony 2's police station to a building in the neighbouring university.

Some time previously, at a spaceport, she has an unnerving and puzzling moment, which she decided to include in her novel…

In 2041, in the Moon's Night City (which used to be called Colony 2), hotel security guard Gaspery was philosophically wondering about the nature of reality – could we be living in some kind of simulation?

Sea of Tranquility is an easy novel to critique as it stands in a detailed and historic part of the SF landscape employing a very common genre trope, plot type and even plot set-up. However, it is a very difficult novel to review: reviews should enable readers to judge whether or not they will want to seek out a book without ruining it with plot giveaways, conversely critiques can contain spoilers. So, no spoilers here.

Having said all of this – as a tease – I'll say that the plot set-up is essentially one that Robert Silverberg has used (which gives you an idea of this novel's provenance but given Silverberg has written so much then good luck discerning to which of his works this relates) and a trope-related plot basis that has been used so many times over the several decades (it even had an excellent treatment by Robert Dickinson back in 2016). Having said all that, with Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel has put her own stamp on this trope and treatment that SF readers will love.

Emily also gives some great misdirection, which adds to the reader's enjoyment, with what is essentially a McGuffin (though some readers might disagree though let me run with this...). Now, given some writers' use of a McGuffin is actually a bit of a cop out, here it actually is used sensibly, as the novel has its own sense-of-wonder through St John Mandel's trope treatment.

Then there are, briefly, echoes with her Station Eleven and its global pandemic. That novel was published half a decade before the CoVID-19 pandemic; conversely, Sea of Tranquility was written during it! Indeed, this is briefly referenced by one of the author characters in the novel and so there is a kind of recursive element too.

Niggles, well despite Sea of Tranquility being a very accomplished (and SFnally engaging) work, I did have a couple, one of which may be put down to personal taste and this I will address first. The author has an annoying habit of keeping you guessing both of whose point of view (PoV) is being used in each of the chapter's sections: sometimes you have to wait a few pages to find out. Ditto the PoV's gender. Now, I know in 'literary' circles both these are all the rage, yet while I may agree with the socio-political sentiments behind using such a stylistic tool, I do find it a story-telling pain in the arse, over-used to the point of it being a stylistic cliché and not at all clever. Ditto the sloppy denoting the 'moon' as a common noun: it is most definitely a proper noun 'Moon' (Earth's moon). Don't young copy editors ever read style manuals these days?

Yet, overall this is a little masterpiece of a novel that SF fans will love. Indeed, I see that back in January (2023) the SF² Concatenation team members selected this novel as one of the best SF titles of 2022. Since then I see that Sea of Tranquility was shortlisted for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association's 2023 Aurora Award (the author is Canadian by birth). It was also short-listed for the 2023 Locus award for 'best SF novel'. All three tributes are well deserved.

Jonathan Cowie


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