The First Great Pandemic Novel

Cover image: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Within a few weeks of the worldwide shutdown that followed the outbreak of COVID-19, I remember reading a slew of think-pieces about how someone, somewhere was using their quarantine to write a great pandemic novel. I rolled my eyes at these headlines. I certainly didn’t have the mental or emotional capacity to write coherently about what was unfolding and I doubted that any writer could pen a book about the epidemic that would be worth reading—at least not until many years had passed.

Fast forward two years, when my copy of Sea of Tranquility arrived in the mail. I was cautiously optimistic. If anyone could do justice to the COVID era, it was Emily St. John Mandel.

Mandel comes to the topic of deadly diseases with more experience than most authors. Her breakout hit, Station Eleven, centers around a modern plague that has wiped out most of humanity. That book is a favorite of mine and it should be no surprise that it experienced a resurgence in 2020, six years after it was first published. Enthusiastic readers pointed to Mandel as a literary prophet who predicted the outbreak, even though her fictional Georgia flu is very different than the real coronavirus.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mandel was flooded with interview and speaking requests. As the literary and the real collided, she started scribbling some notes about a 23rd century writer from the Moon who’s on a book tour on Earth when another pandemic strikes. That experiment in autofiction eventually became Sea of Tranquility.

Having lived through two years of an actual, ongoing global pandemic, I wasn’t sure I was ready to read a novel about a fictional pandemic. Thankfully, Emily St. John Mandel handles the subject matter with delicacy and humanity. Sea of Tranquility is a fast-paced and beautifully written book. The book jumps across four time periods and Mandel wisely doesn’t linger too long in the present, choosing instead to draw parallels between today and epidemics in the past and the future. A time-travel plot ties the whole thing together, but the temporal mystery is secondary to how each character responds when their respective worlds come crashing down.

But even in the book’s darker moments, there is an acknowledgement that history is never ending, even when it seems as though all hope is lost and the human race could never possibly go on. As the author character says in a virtual lecture in the middle of lockdown, “What if it is always the end of the world? Because we might reasonably think of the end of the world as a continuous and never ending process.”

Fans of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel will be happy to see a few familiar faces from the ever-expanding ESJM multiverse, but anyone can jump in without having read either previous book, though it adds an extra layer of depth if you’re able to pick up on the references and recurring characters woven through the plot.

In Sea of Tranquility, Mandel has written the first great pandemic novel of the 21st century. Rather than feeling weighed down or pessimistic, the book is overwhelmingly hopeful. We have been through worse, she reminds us, we will survive this moment of history, and humanity will survive into the future. At a time when our society often feels like it’s on the brink of collapse, that’s a reminder we can all use right now. I know I needed it.

Book: Sea of Tranquility (2022)

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Length: 272 pages

Genre: Literary/science fiction.

Rating: 5/5

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and podcaster in Tacoma, WA. His work has appeared in Creative ColloquyGrit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can follow him on Twitterjoin his mailing list, and listen to his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, wherever you enjoy podcasts.

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