Marquee Moon

Sea of Tranquility By Emily St. John Mandel. New York: Knopf. 272 pages. $18.
Cover of Sea of Tranquility

Emily St. John Mandel is known for novels that hopscotch through time and transform and transcend genre. She has tackled everything from devastating pandemics (written before our own), Madoffesque Ponzi schemes, theater troupes, addiction, and the global shipping industry. Her 2014 best-seller, Station Eleven, was adapted into a critically acclaimed miniseries that premiered on HBO in late 2021.  

Mandel’s sixth novel, Sea of Tranquility, is her most ambitious to date, spanning five hundred years, from early-twentieth-century Canada to a moon colony in 2401, the eras knitted together by her first authorial foray into time travel and metaphysics. But no matter how remarkable the circumstance or setting, Mandel manages to keep her novels remarkably grounded, centering the incredibly human, and often relatable, struggles of her characters. Loyal readers of Mandel may also notice tethers between several of her previous novels—sometimes in something as significant as a reappearing character, other times as subtle as a recurring image. 

In February, I spoke with Mandel over Zoom. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

EMMA DRIES: I’m curious about the genesis of this book. As is characteristic of many of your novels, there are several thematic and plot threads at play in Sea of Tranquility: Edwin’s trip across North America, Olive on book tour, the moon colonies, the time institute. Where did it all begin?

EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL: About three months before the pandemic, I’d started working on a fragmentary autofiction project. This is hard thing to articulate, because I am so incredibly grateful for this life, for the job I get to do. At the same time, people say such interesting things to me on tour. And I do say “interesting” in the most euphemistic way possible. I wanted to write about the experience of being a woman on an epic book tour. Then the pandemic hit, and there was something compelling to me about moving that autofiction idea into sci-fi in order to write about COVID-19 without writing about COVID-19. At the same time, I had also wanted to write a time-travel story. I started writing the 1912 sections with the character Edwin—who’s actually based on a great-grandfather of mine—who left London at age eighteen as a remittance man. He was from a wealthy family but was one of the younger children and the inheritance laws in England at the time were such that all property went to the eldest son. So, what do you do with all the spares? A lot of British men of his class would be shipped off to the colonies. That history struck me as a kind of very strange corner of the Canadian immigrant experience. These men would have been recipients of the most incredible classical educations—my great-grandfather certainly was—but really had zero skills for existing in the real world. They just find themselves adrift in this place that they didn’t understand and that didn’t understand them. I wanted to write about that. And then—and this will probably be obvious to anyone who reads Sea of Tranquility—one of my very favorite novels is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The structure Mitchell employs in Cloud Atlas is a march forward and then backward in time. You can really map it out as a kind of peak, leading from the distant past to the distant future and then back again. I started writing this book in earnest when the pandemic broke out. This is the kind of slightly deranged book that you maybe get from a year where all of us were slightly deranged. 

There are all these disparate elements, but structurally and thematically it really coheres. I’m thinking of that early scene where Edwin is at home and criticizes British colonialism in India, which is somewhat the catalyst for his banishment. That has really compelling parallels to the moon colonies later in the novel. It’s not a perfect mapping, because there’s a difference between colonizing an inhabited land versus colonizing an uninhabited world, but how did it feel to raise those moral and ethical questions?

I started thinking about the simulation hypothesis, which is a big part of this novel. It is what it sounds like, for anyone who’s unfamiliar—the idea that perhaps we are all living in a computer simulation. And you can find very intelligent people who strenuously argue either side of that hypothesis. I thought that maybe there’s an interesting parallel between that idea and the tragedy of colonization, in the sense that the people who colonized the so-called New World did so in the grip of a false narrative. In Canada, where I’m from, it was a narrative of empty land, the idea that this is an empty country that’s there for the taking. Of course, it wasn’t empty—people lived there. There was something about establishing a country under fundamentally false pretenses that really reminded me in a strange way of this theory that we’re all living in a simulation. For me, there was a stronger parallel between those two things than between colonizing Canada and India versus colonizing the moon. Just because, to your point, they feel like such different circumstances. Nobody lives on the moon, so it’s fine. 

There is connective tissue between several of your books. In some cases, you pull characters into new novels. But there are more subtle connections elsewhere. For example, the artificial sky in a comic book (also called Station Eleven) in the novel is described as having been damaged in a war, resulting in the surface always being in sunset or twilight or night. Then, in Sea of Tranquility, the ceiling of the first moon colony is supposed to mimic’s Earth’s atmosphere, but it falls into disrepair, resulting in the moon colony thereafter being referred to as the “the Night City.” 

You’re right, that’s funny, I hadn’t caught that parallel until you said it. 

Well, it seems intentional! 

I love the idea of the damage of the dome reflecting the damaged space station in Station Eleven. There are two things going on there. One is that as novelists, we always return inevitably to the things that interest us. I find myself returning over and over again to stories about group dynamics, and stories about music and travel. And also (this is a little more abstract), maybe we’re seeing—in a very literal way in those two instances you mentioned—an idea about trying to live in a damaged world. I don’t mean in a religious way, but just the struggle of trying to be a moral person in a world that often feels quite corrupt and hostile to honor.

What was it like to see Station Eleven translated onto the screen? I ask because the fate of several of your recurring characters changes between some of your novels, creating a sense of alternate time lines or universes, and then in Sea of Tranquility the introduction of time travel allows for branching time lines within the novel itself. You could look at the TV show as a kind of alternate way your novel could have progressed because so many details were changed. 

What’s become clear to me over the years is that different mediums just have fundamentally different dramatic requirements. If they had tried to map the Station Eleven novel directly onto the screen it would have been an incredible boring show. And I’m not saying it was a boring novel, just that it wouldn’t really work in a different medium. So, all their changes made sense to me, and I think part of my flexibility around that goes back to my writing process. I don’t write from an outline, and so when I finish a novel, I always have this feeling that I could have started at the same place and written ten different novels. To your earlier point, it does feel like a kind of counter-life version, this other Station Eleven that I might have written had I started from the exact same performance of King Lear in Toronto. 

I’ve always admired the way you layer quiet, interpersonal dynamics, conflict, and interior struggles—issues familiar to all of us—onto extreme circumstances or settings. In Station Eleven, you allude to this, writing that “the problem with the Traveling Symphony was the same problem suffered by every group of people everywhere since before the collapse.” In Sea of Tranquility, Olive Llewellyn deals with the sorts of frustrations you also faced on book tour. And yet it’s set in 2203, and she’s living on a moon colony. What appeals to you about this kind of setup? 

I think that in the wake of a massive societal collapse, we would still be fundamentally us: hell would still be other people and you would still be incredibly annoyed in groups. And at the same time, hell would still be the absence of the people you long for. I just have this feeling that we wouldn’t actually change that much and that we won’t fundamentally change that much as the centuries slip past. There’s something interesting to me, and something that feels true, about writing people who still have the same petty grievances and concerns that we do now. 

I’d love to hear a little more about genre. I was reading an interview with you recently in which you talked about your first three novels, which are more in the crime or noir genre, and how, when you wrote Station Eleven, you were seeking a little bit of a broader audience. Do you feel that the success you’ve had also allows for greater freedom in what you can write about? 

When I was writing my first three books, my vision of the perfect novel was something like The Secret History by Donna Tartt, where it’s literary fiction but there’s also this incredible velocity to it and a crime element. Station Eleven was my attempt to avoid being categorized as a crime writer, because when you get categorized as anything it can be so hard to break out of that marketing box. 

I don’t really feel like anything’s off-limits and the literary world has also changed in a really positive way. When I was trying to sell my first novel, Last Night in Montreal, it was rejected by something like thirty-five publishers. Some of them just didn’t like it, which was fine. But one of the most common reasons for rejecting it was along the lines of, “We just don’t know how we would market this, because it’s more than one genre.” But then, fast-forward a few years and it really does feel like a lot has changed. I think a big part of that is The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, which really changed the landscape. However you feel about that book specifically, it succeeded in being more than one genre and was recognized as such, and I think that’s a big deal. 

You’ve done ghosts. You’ve done time travel. You’ve done moon colonies. But dragons? Zombies? Do you feel like you have a line, and do you know where that line is?

I was about to say I wouldn’t write a horror novel. But I love Dan Chaon’s work. Ill Will is just incredible. So I can’t say I don’t like horror fiction if I read Ill Will twice. I read a really good Western recently, which I don’t think of as my usual genre at all. And I really, really love Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel, Zone One

I love that. I can’t wait for your Western zombie novel. 

You’ve spoken about how in Station Eleven the pandemic was used as a device to get to a postapocalyptic world. But in Sea of Tranquility, the characters are faced with yet another pandemic, and COVID-19 becomes just another in a long historical list. Has your approach to writing about pandemics changed after experiencing the last two years? 

I used to think of being in a pandemic as kind of a binary condition: you’re either in a pandemic or not in a pandemic. And I remain kind of fascinated by that period of time—in New York City, it was pretty much all of February 2020 into the first week of March—where it’s like that line in Sea of Tranquility, “We knew it was coming.” We knew it was coming but we somehow didn’t quite believe it. It felt like this massive failure of imagination. And then there’s that creepy way that pandemics seem to almost arrive in retrospect, where you’re like, “Is this terrible thing really going to happen?” And then a month later, you read in the New York Times that at the time you were thinking about that question, the virus was spreading like wildfire through the city. I hadn’t thought about the in-between times, that period of creeping dread leading up to lockdown, or the strange moments like the one we’re in now, when you can’t say the pandemic is over because thousands of Americans are dying of COVID-19. At the same time, mask mandates are lifting because most vaccinated people are at very low risk. But there are these strange territories where it’s almost impossible to make a reasonable risk calculation. That’s something I just didn’t think about when I was writing Station Eleven. And also—and this has less to do with pandemics specifically and more to do with the way this country has changed—there’s a scene in Station Eleven when characters are diverted to an airport. They all get off the planes and they stare up at these monitors tuned to CNN or something and they believe everything the newscaster is saying. And that was only plausible in 2011 when I was writing that book. At this point, there’s no way. Nobody will believe what a newscaster is saying.

Right, our concept of truth or trust has also completely eroded. 

We’ve lost consensual reality. I don’t know how we get that back. 

I’m curious about how you approach hope and optimism versus realism or pessimism when you’re writing, especially because several of your recent novels have dealt in thinking about the future. 

I don’t know if I’m fundamentally an optimistic person, but I’m not a pessimistic person. I guess I walk a middle line. I don’t really like reading relentlessly bleak novels. Maybe that’s a failure of nerve on my part. But life is hard enough. I mentioned The Road earlier. I loved that book, but I was also aware of it as I was writing Station Eleven as a kind of counterexample—as in, we don’t need another The Road. There’s been enough cannibalism in the postapocalypse. I guess that means I have actively tried to avoid writing extremely bleak novels. There’s got to be a glimmer of hope. And maybe that goes back to a conversation about character development. Characters are only interesting to me if they’re both good and evil. You can’t make anybody too much one or the other or else it falls a little flat. I think I could extrapolate that onto novels, too, where a relentlessly happy novel would be boring, and I think a relentlessly bleak novel would be boring, too. There has to be a spark of something in there to change the tone a little bit.

Emma Dries is a writer and an editor.