Apparently living in virtual quarantine throughout a long pandemic leads to thoughts of traveling through time rather than through space. Emily St. John Mandel in Sea of Tranquility presents us with anomalies which end up coming to us by way of the Time Institute of Moon Colony Two. Detectives are trained and then travel in time to try to explain events that seem to operate against the rules of time travel. The rules of time travel have come down to us from science fiction writers and scientists, from Star Trek and Isaac Asimov, et al. The main rule of time travel is to have as little effect on the past as possible because it is impossible to predict the consequences of changing past events beyond the tiniest of adjustments. Penalties for breaking the rules of the Time Institute are severe. You could be killed. You could be banished in time.
There is the anomaly experienced by Edwin St. John St. Andrew who questioned the concept of British imperialism at the dinner table in his London family home, who suggested that meddling implied a responsibility to “civilize savages”. Edwin is banished to America where he experiences a strange vision under a giant American oak tree on an island off Vancouver.
There is Olive Llewellyn, a few centuries later, on a book tour on Earth. Olive lives in Moon Colony Two with her husband and her child. Her homesickness follows her to characterless hotel rooms all over Earth. There is a threat of a spreading disease, but Olive is determined to complete her tour and the disease seems always far from where she is speaking and meeting readers. Her book is called Marienbad and is, ironically, about a pandemic.
There is the mysterious Gaspery-Jacque Roberts who keeps popping up in different eras. Is he from an entire family that names each boy in generation after generation with this unusual family name, or is there another explanation for his ubiquity?
If you could save an innocent, restore a loved one to their family, but had to break the rules of time travel to do so, would you? The fear of what might be lost to history and what might be gained would be difficult to overcome. Would you accept your punishment, or would you rebel?
There are evocative images in this novel and resonant questions about scientific speculations that may never become realities. Will time travel ever be possible? Can we use time travel to escape existential threats to humanity? Mandel brings a certain European sensibility to her books which seem sometimes shrouded in mists. Her mysteries are so mysterious that we can’t quite grasp what we learned and whether we want to know it. Even so she is marvelous at atmospheric fiction and in all her novels, even when travel in time is not the topic, her images and metaphors take us traveling in time.