If ‘Station Eleven’ and ‘The Glass Hotel’ Had a Child
Pandemics, Time Travel, and Moon Colonies: Reviewing Emily St. John Mandel’s ‘Sea of Tranquility’
Like finding so many authors over one’s reading life, encountering Emily St. John Mandel was accidental for me. I was scrolling through Scribd in 2018 or 2019 and ran into Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist and now an acclaimed series on HBO as well. Intrigued, I gave it a whirl.
I’ve recommended it a hundred times since then; I even bought a hard copy to reread myself. When people ask what stood out for me, I say Station Eleven is the only upbeat postapocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. Mandel’s view of human nature, particularly our resilience and communitarian impulses, struck me as both true and hopeful—despite whatever chaos might otherwise be unleashed.
Station Eleven concerns a pandemic, both its early stages and its aftermath. So does Mandel’s newest, Sea of Tranquility. Between these two novels lies another: The Glass Hotel, which I eagerly read in August 2020 as we all began settling into our long season of Covid-19; the novel involves the collapse of a Ponzi scheme and the interlocking lives of the people ruined by it.
A few of those interlocked lives appear again in Sea of Tranquility. While Station Eleven is sometimes shelved as science fiction, Sea of Tranquility takes a more complete imaginative leap into the genre—though retaining and developing aspects of these two predecessors.
Mandel starts her narrative in 1912 but soon jumps to 2020, 2203, and 2401, with several stops in between. The novel pivots around an anomaly (a single moment in which people from different times seem to converge and experience the same strange sights and sounds) and a character (a lonely hotel detective named Gaspery Roberts).
What is the cause of this anomaly? Roberts, working within a shadowy, semiofficial organization, is tasked with discovering what those who experienced the anomaly might know—jumping through time, interviewing subjects, never sharing his true aims.
One of those people is an author whose home was on a moon colony in the same neighborhood were Roberts later grew up; he was even named for a character in one of her books. As they talk about the anomaly—a description of which finds its way into a novel by the author—a pandemic looms. Roberts already knows the outcome.
Officially barred from revealing information to his interviewees and thus risking changes to the timeline, Roberts must balance the cost of keeping secrets against his own sense of humanity. Everything turns on his decision, including discovering the source of the anomaly itself.
There are moments where plotting feels a bit false or forced—perhaps too much signaling. But those moments are few in number. Instead, we are treated to Mandel’s exquisite sense of atmosphere. Whether in the domed lunar colonies or back on future Earth with its reshuffled political borders, Mandel conjures worlds that feel both real and distant, familiar and alien.
Her spare description invites melancholy, sometimes dread, while her protagonist works through his own puzzlement at the mystery he seeks to solve—but also irreversibly complicates. Anyone who’s read Station Eleven or The Glass Hotel will recognize (and probably relish) this melancholy. And they will recognize themes and characters who cameo.
I wonder, however, if they will spot the answer before it’s given.
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