Emily St. John Mandel’s five previous novels include The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, has been translated into 35 languages, and is the basis for the HBO Max series by the same name. She lives in New York City.
Sea of Tranquility: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel, Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $16.25
Edwin St. Andrew is 18 years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal — an experience that shocks him to his core.
Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.
When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.
No star burns forever. You can say “It’s the end of the world” and mean it, but what gets lost in that kind of careless usage is that the world will eventually literally end. Not “civilization,” whatever that is, but the actual planet.
Which is not to say that those smaller endings aren’t annihilating.
A year before I began my training at the Time Institute, I went to a dinner party at my friend Ephrem’s place. He was just back from a vacation on Earth, and he had a story about going on a walk in a cemetery with his daughter, Meiying, who was four at the time. Ephrem was an arborist. He liked to go to old cemeteries to look at the trees. But then they found the grave of another four-year-old girl, Ephrem told me, and he just wanted to leave after that. He was used to graveyards, he sought them out, he’d always said he didn’t find them depressing, just peaceful, but that one grave just got to him. He looked at it and was unbearably sad. Also it was the worst kind of Earth summer day, impossibly humid, and he felt like he couldn’t get enough air. The drone of the cicadas was oppressive. Sweat ran down his back. He told his daughter it was time to go, but she lingered by the gravestone for a moment.
“If her parents loved her,” Meiying said, “it would have felt like the end of the world.”
It was such an eerily astute observation, Ephrem told me, that he stood there staring at her and found himself thinking, Where did you come from? They got out of the cemetery with difficulty — “She had to stop and inspect every goddamn flower and pinecone,” he said — and never went back.
Those are the worlds that end in our day-to-day lives, these stopped children, these annihilating losses, but at the end of Earth there will be actual, literal annihilation, hence the colonies. The first colony on the moon was intended as a prototype, a practice run for establishing a presence in other solar systems in the coming centuries. “Because we’ll have to,” the president of China said, at the press conference where construction on the first colony was announced, “eventually, whether we want to or not, unless we want all of human history and achievement to get sucked into a supernova a few million years down the line.”
I watched footage of that press conference in my sister Zoey’s office, three hundred years after the fact. The president behind the lectern with her officials arrayed around her, a crowd of reporters below the stage. One of them raised his hand: “Are we sure it’s going to be a supernova?”
“Of course not,” the president said. “It could be anything. Rogue planet, asteroid storm, you name it. The point is that we’re orbiting a star, and all stars eventually die.”
“But if the star dies,” I said to Zoey, “obviously the Earth’s moon goes with it.”
“Sure,” she said, “but we’re just the prototype, Gaspery. We’re just proof of concept. The Far Colonies have been populated for a hundred and eighty years.”
— Excerpted from Sea of Tranquility: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel. Copyright 2022 by Emily St. John Mandel. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.