Sea of Tranquility begins on a boat sailing for Canada in 1912 and ends on a space station in 2203. The book is vast, spanning six centuries, two continents, and the moon. Organized around eight seemingly disconnected vignettes featuring a protagonist on a journey of some kind (a second son in pursuit of better prospects, a bereaved wife in search of answers, an author on a book tour, a time traveler), the narrative is a mystery inviting the reader to piece together how these, and indeed all, disparate human lives may share some common themes: connection, death, love.
The book could be described as dystopian. The shadow of plague subtly darkens the micro and macro plots of the book: the scars of smallpox, hints about the 1918 flu pandemic, the specter of the Covid-19 crisis, and a deadly outbreak two centuries in the future. Ideological plagues play their role as well. Colonialism weaves itself into the plot almost unobserved, a quiet continuity from the Canadian appropriation of land from indigenous peoples to the push for colonization of the moon. The portrayal of colonialism is not uncritical, but neither is it activist. Here is one of the many evils that plagues a race for whom nothing is ever enough. When space runs out, time is next.
Yet for a novel that is ostensibly about time travel, pandemics, colonialism, and whether reality is a simulation, the book feels modest, humane, attuned to the particular. The emotional atmosphere of the book is thick with a sense of homesickness, populated by characters separated from those they love by a great distance of either space or time: the older brother, a long-lost friend, the spouse and child waiting at home. In this emphasis on distance there is also a sense of proximity; the theme that pulls these disparate stories together is that desire to be close to those we love, and the battle, sometimes literally, to find each other again when we are lost to time, sickness, or sorrow.
The novel seems to be a work of self-portraiture: Edwin, the protagonist of the first chapter, bears the middle name “St. John,” Mirella (of the second chapter) lives through the 2020 pandemic, Olive (of the third) finds herself propelled into fame for writing an (un)timely book about a pandemic, parallel to Mandel’s own uncanny composition of Station Eleven several years before the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking for herself in every era, Mandel concludes that while pandemics come and go, wars obliterate and remake society, and colonies rise and fall, the pains and joys of human connection persist. At one point Olive observes, “We might reasonably think of the end of the world … as a continuous and never-ending process.” The time traveler’s dilemma (whether to save someone) played out over six centuries reminds us that we cannot escape our own deaths, and yet in moments of hinted synchronicity throughout the book, readers may begin to wonder if we can outlast death after all, through the power that spans these many centuries: love.