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Emily St. John Mandel’s ‘Sea of Tranquility’ is a mind-bending novel

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Even before there was late-night pizza delivery, people sat around debating the ultimate nature of reality.

More than 2,000 years ago, Master Zhuang dreamed he was a butterfly, and Plato imagined shadows dancing on a cave wall. While the Puritans were building their City on a Hill, Descartes worried that some evil demon was creating the complicated illusion we mistake for the physical world.

Electrified by semiconductors, modern philosophers hypothesized that our lives could be elaborate computer simulations — a woo-woo thesis that gave rise, on this plane of existence, to a long shelf of science fiction novels.

As Y2K threatened to destroy modern civilization, millions of people swarmed to “The Matrix” and wondered whether they should choose the red pill or wear a long leather jacket.

Slippery speculations about reality remain everything everywhere all at once. Perhaps two years of Zoom meetings and virtual work have made us particularly susceptible to the far-out hypotheses of epistemology. What else could explain our obsession with literary novels that pick at loose threads in the fabric of time and space? Coincidence? Or is the evil demon finally showing his hand?

In just the last few months, Hervé Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” — a cheeky bestseller from France — has fascinated readers with its story of a Boeing 787 that is instantly replicated, much to the chagrin of the passengers and their doppelgangers.

Hanya Yanagihara’s new epic, “To Paradise,” traces inexplicable parallels and recurring names passing through a New York mansion for 200 years.

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And now we have arrived — or seem to have arrived — at Emily St. John Mandel’s wildly anticipated novel, “Sea of Tranquility.” It’s a curious thought experiment that borrows from the plague terror she spun in “Station Eleven” and the perception-bending tricks she played in “The Glass Hotel.” (Fans will even catch some characters from that previous novel flickering through this new one.)

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“Sea of Tranquility” is an elegant demonstration of Mandel’s facility with a range of tones and historical periods. The novel opens in 1912 when Edwin, a young Englishman who offended his wealthy father, finds himself exiled to the wilds of Western Canada. He has some vague notion that he’ll take up farming, whatever that might entail. In the meantime, he pouts and drifts. “The trouble with Victoria,” he thinks, “is that it’s too much like England without actually being England. It’s a far-distant simulation of England, a watercolor superimposed unconvincingly on the landscape.”

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That line is the tripwire that triggers this novel’s curious philosophical considerations. A few pages later, our hapless hero is walking in the forest where he spots a maple tree in a clearing. “He steps forward,” Mandel writes, “into a flash of darkness, like sudden blindness or an eclipse. He has an impression of being in some vast interior, something like a train station or a cathedral, and there are notes of violin music, there are other people around him, and then an incomprehensible sound—.”

Edwin finds this surreal experience upsetting but only for what it suggests about his mental health. Regardless, he’s quickly abandoned as the novel jumps ahead a century to characters we last saw in “The Glass Hotel” and then a century beyond that to the year 2203. A best-selling novelist named Olive, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Emily St. John Mandel, is on a book tour around planet Earth.

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Mandel delivers this futuristic section with an impish blend of wit and dread. Olive misses her husband and daughter back on the moon as her publisher spirits her to public readings, panel discussions and inane interviews with poorly prepared journalists. (In one of several delightfully meta moments, Olive asks her audience why there’s been such strong interest lately in post-apocalyptic literature.) It’s thrilling to imagine that we’ll still have novels and even bookstores in the 23rd century; it’s less exciting to learn that we’ll still be sheltering in lockdown and dying of plagues.

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All these various stories are finely constructed, but they gather force only during the novel’s time-traveling second half set in the year 2401. Mandel moves lightly across this distant era. A world utterly transformed is merely implied by allusions to China’s primacy and various independent regions of the United States. Rather than clutter the pages with technological advances and gee-whiz gadgets, “Sea of Tranquility” concentrates on the psychological implications of living in domed colonies on the surface of the moon. This is science fiction that keeps its science largely in abeyance, as dark matter for a story about loneliness, grief and finding purpose.

A man named Gaspery — spotted fleetingly in earlier chapters — now comes into full focus. Still mourning the loss of his mother, Gaspery lives on the moon and works at a “terminally boring” hotel job. He might have stayed there his whole life, if it weren’t for his sister. She specializes in something called “quantum blockchain technology,” the fusion of two things I don’t understand in the present day. Breaking all the security rules, she tells Gaspery that “moments from different centuries are bleeding into one another.” And once bitten by that revelation, Gaspery can’t shake the desire to travel through time and figure out what’s causing the anomaly.

This is heavy, as Marty McFly would say. The paradoxes of Gaspery’s adventure will be familiar to anyone who’s studied Jean Baudrillard or seen “Back to the Future.” But Mandel has the stylistic elegance and emotional sympathy to make this more than merely an undergraduate bull session. Absent your own time portal to the 1990s, it’s a chance to re-experience the thrill of “Sophie’s World,” to wrestle with the mind-blowing possibility that what is may be entirely different from what we see.

As a young Christian Scientist, I spent an inordinate amount of time fussing over the nature of consciousness and the unsubstantiality of matter. A junior epistemologist, I was trafficking in Bishop Berkeley before I could drive. These days, though, I’m a lot more concerned with how we treat each other and how we grieve, subjects that feel close to the heart of Mandel’s novel.

This fall, the philosopher-poet John Koethe will publish a collection called “Beyond Belief.” In one poem, he writes,

Either way, you can’t know whether

It was real or just an exercise in self-delusion, for whichever it might be

The view from where you are remains the same, with nothing to go on

But the trying, and dying for it to happen again and again.

That’s likely to remain true even in the 25th century, even on the moon.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post.

Sea of Tranquility

By Emily St. John Mandel

Knopf. 272 pp. $25

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