By Gail Pennington Special for the Post-Dispatch
“I guess I’m not the first to ask you what it’s like to be the author of a pandemic novel during a pandemic,” a holographic interviewer asks novelist Olive Llewellyn in “Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel deliciously unsettling. ”
Olive could be a sort of stand-in for Mandel herself, which follows 2014’s “Station Eleven” (a novel about the aftermath of a deadly flu) and 2020’s “The Glass Hotel” with a trippy trip to the time, from 1912 in British Columbia through the pandemic year 2203 and beyond.
Mandel keeps a myriad of balls in the air in “Sea of Tranquility,” which premieres Tuesday. We first meet Edwin St. John St. Andrew, a third son struggling with two “saint” names and cut off from his father’s wealth. At 18, he left England for Canada, where inertia and chance landed him in a small town on Vancouver Island. There, in a forest, he experiences a deeply unsettling split-second experience.
Then, in 2020 in Brooklyn, Mirella Kessler attends a concert by composer Paul Smith, hoping to find out the whereabouts of her sister, Vincent. There, Smith shows a clip of video recorded by Vincent, then a teenager, in a Vancouver forest where reality shatters for a split second. (Aha, you say.)
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Mandel likes to string characters into his books, and in fact Vincent was the protagonist of “The Glass Hotel.” You don’t have to have read every previous book to keep up, but the character of the Easter eggs enriches the experience.
The first installment dedicated to the novelist Olive Llewellyn finds her on Earth (an important point) in 2203, on tour in support of a new edition of her latest book. It’s being adapted for the screen – just like Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” per HBO Max. Olive’s segments are titled “The Last Book Tour on Earth,” which should keep us on the edge of our seats, if not reaching for a mask.
How, readers must ask, can all these disparate plots come together? It turns out they’ve already started crossing paths, and once we meet Gaspery-Jacques Roberts in 2401, we begin to see that the key is time.
Diving much deeper into the how and why of “Sea of Tranquility” would spoil some of the reveals. But the plot isn’t the only thing to enjoy. Each character on their own could probably carry a book, just like the picture – not rosy, but hardly hopeless – that Mandel paints of a future Earth.
“No star burns forever”, Mandel has Gaspery as his muse. “You can say it’s the end of the world and think so, but what gets lost in this kind of careless use is that the world will literally end. Not ‘civilization’, whatever. , but the planet itself.”
So, in the 22nd century, settlements in case on the moon were inhabited so long that the simulated sky on one of them became kaput. The solution: call the colony the night city.
Good news: We are traveling by airship and hovercraft in the 2200s. Bad: pandemics are by no means a thing of the past. Ebola X, two characters reflect, has led to a 64-week lockdown, and even as Olive Llewellyn promotes a book about a deadly disease, rumors of a new virus are bubbling from Australia.
Mandel is generous with flashes of wry humor. When his sister, Zoey, hands him a letter from 1912, Gaspery can’t read it. “What alphabet is it? he asks, calling it “almost English, but twisted and slanted.”
“Gaspéry,” said his sister, exasperated. “It’s cursive.”
“Sea of Tranquility,” and the Mandel-like author, were conceived during the COVID-19 shutdown, she told interviewers. Putting the fictional novelist over the moon was an escape from the Brooklyn apartment where BC-raised Mandel now lives with her husband and daughter.
“Sea of Tranquility” may remind readers a bit of Anthony Doerr’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land” for the way its fragments fit together along the way. He also shares the sensibility of many books that play with the anomalies of time, including “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”
But Mandel’s style is distinctly her own, and she excels at bringing out the brightness in the dark. Readers will leave “Sea of Tranquility,” like “Station Eleven” before it, feeling hope for humanity.
Gail Pennington is the Post-Dispatch’s retired longtime television critic.