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Some thoughts on Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility

Some thoughts on Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility

I finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility over the weekend. A fun read, right up my alley. The writing is graceful, generous, keenly observant.

On health and illness:

“The truth is,” Olive said, behind a lectern in Paris, “even now, all these centuries later, for all our technological advances, all our scientific knowledge of illness, we still don’t always know why one person gets sick and another doesn’t, or why one patient survives and another dies. Illness frightens us because it’s chaotic. There’s an awful randomness about it.”

On the grace of friends and family:

She never dwelt on my lapses, and I couldn’t entirely parse why this made me feel so awful. There’s a low-level, specific pain in having to accept that putting up with you requires a certain generosity of spirit in your loved ones.

(I really relate to the above.)

On life in a pandemic:

She’d always been shy. On tour all those faces kept appearing before her, face after face after face, and most of them were kind but all of them were the wrong faces, because after a few days on the road the only people Olive wanted to see were Sylvie and Dion. But when the world shrank to the size of the interior of the apartment, and to a population of three, the people were what she missed.


Olive woke at four a.m. to work for two hours while Sylvie slept, then Dion worked from six a.m. to noon while Olive made an attempt to be a schoolteacher and to keep their daughter reasonably sane, then Olive worked for two hours while Dion and Sylvie played, then Sylvie got an hour of hologram time while both her parents worked, then Dion worked while Olive played with Sylvie, then somehow it was time to make dinner and then dinner blurred into the bedtime hour, then by eight p.m. Sylvie was asleep and Olive went to bed not long after, then Olive’s alarm rang because it was once again four a.m., etc.


It’s shocking to wake up in one world and find yourself in another by nightfall, but the situation isn’t actually all that unusual. You wake up married, then your spouse dies over the course of the day; you wake in peacetime and by noon your country is at war; you wake in ignorance and by evening it’s clear that a pandemic is already here.


…her effervescent five-year-old sat before her, grinning, and what she found at that moment, as the lights of yet another ambulance flickered over the ceiling, was that it was possible to smile back. This is the strange lesson of living in a pandemic: life can be tranquil in the face of death.

One of the characters in the book is an author, seemingly a reflection of Mandel. Both gained (more) fame for their post-pandemic fiction during a pandemic. The author/surrogate ponders publicly why we, as a society, are fixated on post-apocalyptic fiction:

“…and my point is, there’s always something. I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.”

“But all of this raises an interesting question,” Olive said. “What if it always is the end of the world?” She paused for effect. Before her, the holographic audience was almost perfectly still. “Because we might reasonably think of the end of the world,” Olive said, “as a continuous and never-ending process.”

“When we consider the question of why now,” Olive said, before a different audience of holograms the following evening, “I mean why there’s been this increased interest in postapocalyptic fiction over the past decade, I think we have to consider what’s changed in the world in that timeframe, and that line of thinking leads me inevitably to our technology… My personal belief is that we turn to postapocalyptic fiction not because we’re drawn to disaster, per se, but because we’re drawn to what we imagine might come next. We long secretly for a world with less technology in it.”

On simulations:

“…on nights when my wife and I played the violin together, when we cooked together, when we walked in our fields watching the movements of the farm robots, when we sat on the porch watching the airships rise up like fireflies on the horizon over Oklahoma City, this is what the Time Institute never understood: if definitive proof emerges that we’re living in a simulation, the correct response to that news will be So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.”

You don't get what you expect, you get what you inspect.