In 1912, a young “remittance man” – an earl’s third son who aimlessly immigrated to British Columbia – stumbles into a forest and encounters a brief, inexplicable anomaly in time: a violin being played in a vast, echoing space.
Two centuries later, a bestselling book about a pandemic has been published by a writer named Olive Llewellyn, and it has made her famous. In it, there’s a passage about a violinist busking in an Oklahoma airship terminal when, for a bizarre instant, he is surrounded by a forest. How are these two things connected? How could a novelist born in a moon colony know such a thing once actually happened? How could a third person, a 21st-century girl, have experienced and recorded the same strange event in the same forest as the earl’s son in 1912? And how can a time-traveling secret agent from yet another future century discover the truth of the anomaly without disrupting time itself?
These are the questions at the heart of “Sea of Tranquility,” the new novel by Emily St. John Mandel. The author of “Station Eleven” and “The Glass Hotel” has said this story was inspired by one of her favorite novels, David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” and also by her lifelong fondness for speculative fiction. Elegantly written, heartbreaking and full of surprises, “Sea of Tranquility” will capture readers’ imagination and take them on a journey they will long remember. What, after all, is reading if it is not time travel?
This interview was conducted via email and edited for length.
Q: In a passage of the book called “The Last Book Tour on Earth,” author Olive Llewellyn tells one interviewer: “I’ve never been interested in auto-fiction” – meaning, a form of fiction based on autobiography. But many of the events in Olive’s book tour felt as if they could’ve happened on your “Station Eleven” tour. Can you reveal if any of the anecdotes were inspired by reality? For example: Was there really a woman in Dallas who said she felt that the book “just ended”?
A: I meant that line as a joke, since I suspect most readers will quickly realize that that whole section is auto-fiction.
There’s obviously a strong sci-fi element through that section – Olive lives on the moon – but every interaction that she has on the road is entirely autobiographical. The overwhelming majority of my interactions with readers are entirely positive. Also, a woman really did tell me that she was surprised at how the book “just ended,” although I could no longer tell you for certain whether or not that was in Dallas.
Q: Olive seems to be your doppelgänger in the 23rd century, touring on behalf of the tie-in edition of a novel that sounds very much like “Station Eleven.” Later, three months into pandemic lockdown, she is working on “this crazy sci-fi thing” that sounds as if it might be “Sea of Tranquility.” Is this new novel your science-fiction debut, since it centers on time travel?
A: The whole question of genre is so slippery, isn’t it? … I have always loved sci-fi, and, in fact, growing up it was really mostly all I read. I think it’s possible that a more expansive way of looking at the question is to use the term “speculative fiction” instead, which I’d define as fiction in which the author’s speculating about what the future might look like. By that measure, I’d say that “Station Eleven” was my speculative fiction debut.
Q: So time travel was not an interest you developed just for this book.
A: I’ve read a ton of sci-fi and have always been fascinated by time travel stories. I believe a lot of people are drawn to time travel without necessarily thinking of it in those terms – I think part of what explains the popularity of sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe is that, on some level, we harbor a longing to meet our ancestors.
Q: Thinking of the very real 10,000-year lease on a library in Cincinnati and the fictional Far Colonies out in Alpha Centauri: Did you mean for these two ideas, separated by centuries, to exemplify our desire to believe that human civilization will endure into an unknowable future?
A: That’s interesting; I hadn’t thought of that parallel. But you’re right, there’s definitely something there. I visited the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati a number of years ago and was delighted when the director told me about the 10,000-year renewable lease. It’s just one of the most wonderful facts I’ve ever encountered. What could be more hopeful than a 10,000-year lease on a library!
Q: Here and there, you dropped intriguing or troubling hints about future possibilities. The US being broken up into sectors like the Republic of Texas, for one; Oklahoma City becoming a mid-continental airship hub; holographic meetings during a future pandemic, instead of Zoom videos; and the idea that within 100 years, China will be the world’s remaining superpower. Have you seen things happening that make you believe some of these changes might actually come to pass?
A: Those are all changes that seem plausible to me, but that does not mean they’re inevitable. I think a lot of Americans, myself included, feel a deep unease about the current political landscape. It’s one thing to disagree on matters of policy, but it’s something else entirely to find oneself in a situation where different groups of people believe in entirely different versions of reality, and it’s hard to escape a queasy sense that the country is becoming increasingly ungovernable. Also, yes, I think eventually Zoom will probably involve sitting around in holographic rooms with your fellow holographs.
Q: I like the ideas that 200 years from now people still will be reading printed books, that there will still be coins to be thrown into musicians’ hats, and that human beings will live on the Sea of Tranquility. Do you ever envision how things might be in your grandchildren’s time, hoping certain things will change a lot and others not at all?
A: Yes, definitely. I did an interview recently where the interviewer was like, “I made a list of things that persist into the far future in your book, and it’s red velvet cake, cupcakes and misogyny.” It would be nice if only the first two things on that list are still with us in the coming centuries.
“Sea of Tranquility,” by Emily St. John Mandel