Michelle’s commentary on books, digital publishing and intersections between fiction & reality

Reading “Sea of Tranquility” in Budapest, Hungary

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The Book: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

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4.5/5 stars

*No spoilers

I’ve been really drawn to novels that feature interweaving, seemingly disconnected narratives (Cloud Cuckoo Land is still an all-time favorite). I find it to be one of the strongest writing skills an author can have — creating such distinct narrators in different time periods with different backgrounds and bringing them together.

When executed properly, it makes for really fascinating stories with complex, intricate characters. And Emily St. John Mandel accomplishes this well in Sea of Tranqulity.

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The characters in her novel are not only connected by the science fiction time travel plot that spans centuries, but through the consistent themes they face. It lends an extra touch of humanity, showcasing that even in 1912, 2203, and 2401, the themes of loss, time passing, and grievance are resounding.

I’ve stayed away from science fiction in the past because I tend to get distracted by the intricate technology and world building. I appreciate science fiction like Sea of Tranquility that doesn’t spend time explaining and rationalizing how every single innovative thing works.

When it’s not integral to the plot of the story, I think it’s completely fine to just let things exist without detailing the ins and outs of it all. I care more about what the characters are going through then how time travel from a lunary colony came about.

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Since this novel was worked on during the early stages of COVID-19, it’s no surprise that pandemics are a focal point of the novel. It gets a bit meta at one point, as one of the characters Olive is on a book tour in the U.S. speaking about her pandemic novel — right before the outbreak of another one.

Everything is brought together by the presence of the character, Gaspery, who is traveling to different points in time to research a potential “glitch” in time. The introduction of his story makes all the parts that came beforehand start to make sense and it’s wrapped up nicely.

All in all, it’s a really well-written and intriguing novel. My only quip is that I wish it were longer.

Favorite Quotes

  • Sometimes you don’t know you’re going to throw a grenade until you’ve already pulled the pin. 
  • Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. They arrive in retrospect, essentially. It’s disorienting. The pandemic is far away and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step.
  • “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.”
  • “My personal belief is that we turn to post-apocalyptic 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.”
  • “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.”

The Place: Budapest Hungary in April

I’ve concluded my moving around Europe by making a home base in Budapest. While it was exciting to start life over in a new country every 1-2 months, it was starting to get pretty exhausting. And I think Jasper is a lot happier with a stable place to stay.

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I’ve already taken some mini trips — I’ve gone to Bari, Vienna again, Prague, and some more trips to Lake Balaton. It’s nicer sometimes being able to visit with friends rather than start over everywhere I go. It’s also a nice money-saver.

I really love my apartment, it has a cute balcony with a view of the Opera here. It’s next to all the public transport lines and Margaret Island, which is nice to relax at in the warm weather.

The only thing I’ve noticed — that’s a bit of a negative — is just how much faster time goes by in a stable environment. When I was constantly moving around and being exposed to so many new things, time went by much slower. I’ve been back in Budapest for 2 months now — which is equal to my time here in January and February — and it feels much, much longer.

If you want to live a normal life, though, you can’t really avoid that fact.

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Michelle Newblom
About the Author

Michelle is fascinated by the power of the written word, the weight language holds and how influential writing can be. She has experience working in all different realms of publishing—including newspapers, magazines, blogs and research journals.

Feel free to contact her at mnewblom@gmail.com

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