Sea of Tranquility
Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, 2022 ($25)

Peel away the speculative skin of Emily St. John Mandel's latest novel—the time travel, the moon colonies, the Möbius strip of a plot that, against all odds, holds together until the very last page—and what's left is something much more vulnerable: a story about grief. In this moment of unbearable negative space, of sputtering pandemic disruptions and mind-numbing stasis, Mandel has written a eulogy for our half-lived years.

Sea of Tranquility, which forms a loose triptych alongside Mandel's two most recent novels, The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven, opens with a scene of exile: It is 1912, and Edwin St. John St. Andrew, the recently banished son of a well-to-do British family, is “hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic by steamship.” His destination is the eastern coast of Canada. He has no concrete plans, no real sense of purpose, and eventually he will find himself on the other side of the country, wandering through a forest in British Columbia, where, in a flash of weirdness, the first hints of this novel's true scope in space and time are revealed.

In subsequent chapters the narrative hops from Edwin's story to almost present-day New York City (where Mandel wrote this novel during the COVID pandemic, the sound of ambulance sirens surely at times a near-constant companion), then to a future moon colony, with multiple stops along the way. At first all that holds these disparate threads together is the sense that something is off, an almost imperceptible tear in the fabric of time. Eventually the threads begin crossing, and it becomes impossible not to keep reading to see how these story lines will converge.

The most visceral and immediate of the novel's narrative threads concerns a writer named Olive Llewellyn, who when we first meet her has temporarily left her family behind on one of the moon colonies to come to Earth for a book tour on the eve of a new global pandemic. To her credit, Mandel makes no effort at coyness—it is pretty clear that many of Olive's experiences mirror her own, from having to grind through countless bizarre interview questions (“What's your favorite alibi?” one interviewer enthusiastically asks Olive, as though we all carry one around in our back pocket in case of emergencies) to the crushing weight of days spent on the road and the simple desire to just go back home. These passages alone are worth the price of admission, not so much for voyeuristic extrapolation about how much of this book is really disguised memoir but rather for the pitch-perfect descriptions of the writing life, both before and during COVID.

The past few months have seen the birth of what might be called the first full generation of pandemic-era novels—books such as Neal Stephenson's Termination Shock, Hanya Yanagihara's To Paradise and Sequoia Nagamatsu's How High We Go in the Dark. Whether these books were written before the COVID era or not, they are now destined to be read in the shadow of the present moment, just as any novel released between 2017 and 2021 that touched even tangentially on authoritarianism was inevitably read in the shadow of Trump.

In some cases, the plagues that haunt this new crop of books are little more than scenery, a kind of wry nod to the low-grade fear many of us have that maybe this is just what the future will look like: one vicious contagion after another. Sometimes they are a means to critique the maddening vulnerability of individual-centric societies struggling against calamities that require, more than anything, a communal response. In stories such as Lawrence Wright's The End of October, they are action-movie fodder: pathogens cast in the role of supervillains.

Mandel's work occupies the decidedly introspective end of this spectrum. As with her previous novels, there is no hard sci-fi in Sea of Tranquility, no detailed explanations of the biomechanics of disease or the physics of time travel. Occasionally a tracking device might make an appearance out of narrative necessity, or a character may briefly note the rules of the game before slipping through time, but all these descriptions are firmly subservient. It is the emotional and psychological consequences of these technologies and calamities with which the novel is chiefly concerned. When Olive sits on an airship with three masks over her face, terrified of bringing a new illness home to her husband and daughter, it is only tangential that the airship is traveling to the moon. When she trudges through yet another virtual lecture to a room full of holograms, every reader will be reminded of their last Zoom meeting and the vaguely dehumanizing sense of being ushered into a cheap facsimile of the world.

Many of Mandel's signature moves are here: the interweaving plotlines, the quietly dystopian setting and, of course, the deadly pandemic as narrative device. But perhaps more than all these things, the most common and powerful motif in Mandel's fiction is the adherence to the idea that art and beauty are necessary. Her characters might suffer from a great many maladies but none more soul-draining than aesthetic poverty, none more unendurable than grayscale lives.

Art seeps in through every seam of this story. As soon as Edwin arrives in Canada, he takes up painting classes. Violin notes echo through the centuries, as do the words of a novel within the novel. The work of Shakespeare makes a cameo, as it has before in Mandel's books. Art is the means by which characters decipher the secrets of their own existence, in some parts of the novel quite literally.

Perhaps this is why Sea of Tranquility, for all its narrative cleverness and sci-fi inventions, is at its core an emotionally devastating novel about human connection: what we are to one another—and what we should be.

Midway through the book a pandemic tears through the population, both on Earth and in the distant colonies, and several of Mandel's characters are forced into numbingly inward lives as depleted and fear-lacquered as so many of ours these past couple of years. It is the small details of this self-imposed cocooning, these hollowed-out moments, that cut deepest. The novel's most crushing scene, only a few lines long and told in passing, involves a young child deep into pandemic lockdown having a conversation with an inanimate object, trying to make friends. I have loved every one of Mandel's books (full disclosure: she was kind enough to blurb my first novel), but none has hit a nerve quite the way this one did.

Despite this heaviness, Sea of Tranquility is a brisk read. At a line level, the verbs do much of the heavy lifting, and the overarching plot, which involves a vast time-travel bureaucracy, is deliciously and just a little disconcertingly addictive. There is constant movement both within scenes and in the grand sweep of the novel. As the pandemic rages still through the real world, some of the scenes will feel a little too close. But after so much time spent away from one another, after so much distancing, the closeness is in its own way a balm, a reminder that we were, even in our aloneness, together.—Omar El Akkad

Omar El Akkad is a Canadian-Egyptian journalist and author of the novels What Strange Paradise (2021) and American War (2017).

In Brief

The Candy House
by Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 2022 ($28)

Like its prequel, the 2011 Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan's newest book reads not quite like a novel or a short story collection but like a fragmentary work of fiction with many perspectives and styles. This time a technology called Own Your Unconscious—a headset that lets people revisit their memories or see someone else's—is the conceit that brings old and new characters together in New York, Chicago, the American Southwest, and elsewhere as they navigate grief, love, parenthood, sex, addiction and trauma. Funny, heartfelt and cerebral, The Candy House asks compelling questions about authenticity and privacy in the era of surveillance capitalism. —Adam Morgan

Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs
by Juli Berwald
Riverhead Books, 2022 ($28)

Ocean scientist Juli Berwald is adamant that Life on the Rocks is not an obituary. The threats to coral reefs are daunting and multilayered, but so, too, are the solutions. Berwald goes beyond the usual methods (preservation, reef-safe sunscreen) to describe unlikely efforts by special-ops veterans turned reef doctors, marine scientists and a conglomerate candy company. One idea involves nebulizing seawater into clouds over reefs to reflect more of the sun's radiation. Each highly readable chapter leans toward optimism, but key questions go unresolved. Are corals resilient enough to withstand warming oceans, or are these “success stories” death rattles in disguise? —Maddie Bender

Loath to Print: The Reluctant Scientific Author, 1500–1750
by Nicole Howard
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022 ($55)

The arrival of the printing press was a complicated milestone for scientific communication. Wary of intellectual-property theft, information overload and underprepared readers (Descartes decried “the cavils of ignorant contradiction-mongers”), early scientists sought to embrace print's possibilities while avoiding its pitfalls: Huygens published his discovery of Saturn's rings in an anagram; Galileo strategically distributed review copies of his work, elevating him to Medici court mathematician. History professor Nicole Howard's analysis offers startling glimpses behind the scenes of foundational scientific texts. —Dana Dunham

Scientific American book recommendations April 2022