Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John MandelSea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, time travel
Pages: 255
Published by Knopf on May 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook

The award-winning, best-selling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel returns with a novel of art, time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.
Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal--an experience that shocks him to his core.
Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She's traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive's best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.
When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.
A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.'

My Review:

The thing about wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey bits is that the bits do wobble in erratic patterns that result in equally wobbly results.

The story begins with a man who thinks he might be going insane, and ends with one who realizes that everything that has happened, everything that we’ve read and experienced, is all his fault. And that there’s nothing he can do about it except see events through to their conclusion – a conclusion which is also their beginning.

Sea of Tranquility jumps through time and space, from Victoria BC just before the First World War to the Lunar Colony One in 2401 and several points in between, all linked by a weird glitch under an old maple tree on Vancouver Island where, if a person is standing in just the right place and walking in just the right direction they are temporarily, and temporally, transported to an airship terminal in Oklahoma City hearing an old man play a few notes of a lullaby on a violin. Right around the turn of the 20th century into the 21st. No matter when in time the “time traveler” is really standing.

Some people at the Time Institute on Lunar Colony One believe that this repeating “glitch” is evidence that life isn’t real, that we’re all part of some higher-order being’s simulation of life. Others think it’s been faked or a mass hallucination or some other less fantastical explanation. Rookie Time Agent Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is sent to investigate all of the people who have experienced the glitch, whenever and wherever they happen to be, to see if he can bring back enough evidence for the Time Institute to make a final determination.

Which, in the end, they think they do. Of him. Or so they believe. But in the end, those timey-wimey bits turn out to have one wobble left in them. And it’s a doozy.

Escape Rating B: If Eversion and Under Fortunate Stars had a book baby, it would be Sea of Tranquility. In spite of Sea having been published first.

I picked this up because I loved Station Eleven and Sea of Tranquility has won all sorts of awards, including Goodreads Best Science Fiction book for 2022. It’s interesting, it’s terribly terribly interesting, but now that I’ve read it I have to admit that it was good but not as great as all the reviews have made it out to be.

Let me, as I always try to do, explain.

One of the interesting and excellent things about Sea of Tranquility is that the author managed to write a book about the pandemic without it being truly about the recent pandemic. And yet it still managed to address the issues around all the human behavior and human reactions to the pandemic just sideways enough to make that part of the story just distant enough to let the reader see things clearly rather than being a drumbeat about everything that specifically went wrong.

Authors seem to be dealing with the pandemic in plenty of different ways, but this was particularly good because it set it in the context of pandemics in general and human responses to them more generally while still letting the pandemic that happens in 2203 – or at least one character’s reaction to it – pull at our heartstrings rather than inducing rage at what woulda, coulda, shoulda happened instead.

That this particular part of the story is framed around an author on a Book Tour made it even more appealing and comprehensible – particularly for those of us even tangentially related to the book world.

(Speaking of which, the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati that the author in the book visits on her book tour is not only a real place but it really does have a 10,000 year renewable lease for its building. What the Director’s office actually looks like may or may not match the description, but considering the pictures on the interwebs of the rest of the building I would not be at all surprised. I would be equally unsurprised to learn that the author of Sea of Tranquility had visited the Merc while on tour for either Station Eleven or The Glass Hotel.)

But my initial reaction to Sea of Tranquility was very similar to the way I felt at the beginning of Eversion. Because both books tell multiple stories seemingly dropped in different eras, and because both start out seeming to focus on one character who we get sucked into caring about. Then we discover that it isn’t his story, and it isn’t the next character’s story or even the next and it’s not until near the end that we and the protagonist finally learn who that protagonist really is.

It’s also a bit like Under Fortunate Stars in that the story is about causality and closing a time loop that no one knew was there. In Under Fortunate Stars events were being manipulated by a benevolent universe, or luck, or fate, depending on what one thinks of any of those agencies in an SFnal context. But in Sea of Tranquility there’s a self-interested Time Institute who believes that they are in control of any and all temporal meddling. Which they really, really aren’t.

In the end, the story in Sea of Tranquility is more than a bit meta, in that it comments on itself within itself – disguised as reader commentary to the author on that book tour – and seems to be telling fragments of stories that only connect up at the end, and that only loosely. It’s an interesting enough read – helped by the book being short – but it doesn’t quite gel into a compelling whole.

Which is really too bad because some parts of it, particularly the book tour, were terrific. But the whole is disjointed. We don’t have enough time to get invested in the characters, particularly the actual protagonist of the whole thing. And I have to say that while the story has SFnal aspects – because time travel – it’s not SF enough to make me think of it as a top pick for specifically SF awards.  (Putting it another way I don’t think it is nearly SF enough to place it among my Hugo nominations.)

One final note, some of the time travel aspects did give me warm fuzzies of Jack Finney’s time travel classic, Time and Again, including the author’s visit to the Dakota. Not that the stories go to the same times or places, but the process of approaching time travel and immersion in the period – as well as the punishments for messing up the supposedly sacred timeline, were very familiar.

I recently learned that The Glass Hotel provides backstory for several of the 21st century characters who have secondary roles in Sea of Tranquility. The Glass Hotel has been on my TBR pile for a while now, but it has just moved considerably up the pile!

Review: Freedom of Speech by David K. Shipler

Review: Freedom of Speech by David K. ShiplerFreedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword by David K. Shipler
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 352
Published by Knopf on May 12th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

A provocative, timely assessment of the state of free speech in America
With his best seller The Working Poor, Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times veteran David K. Shipler cemented his place among our most trenchant social commentators. Now he turns his incisive reporting to a critical American ideal: freedom of speech. Anchored in personal stories—sometimes shocking, sometimes absurd, sometimes dishearteningly familiar—Shipler’s investigations of the cultural limits on both expression and the willingness to listen build to expose troubling instabilities in the very foundations of our democracy.
Focusing on recent free speech controversies across the nation, Shipler maps a rapidly shifting topography of political and cultural norms: parents in Michigan rallying to teachers vilified for their reading lists; conservative ministers risking their churches’ tax-exempt status to preach politics from the pulpit; national security reporters using techniques more common in dictatorships to avoid leak prosecution; a Washington, D.C., Jewish theater’s struggle for creative control in the face of protests targeting productions critical of Israel; history teachers in Texas quietly bypassing a reactionary curriculum to give students access to unapproved perspectives; the mixed blessings of the Internet as a forum for dialogue about race.
These and other stories coalesce to reveal the systemic patterns of both suppression and opportunity that are making today a transitional moment for the future of one of our founding principles. Measured yet sweeping, Freedom of Speech brilliantly reveals the triumphs and challenges of defining and protecting the boundaries of free expression in modern America.

Most of the time, freedom of speech is an abstract concept. And even though it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the interpretation of what that simple phrase, “freedom of speech”, means in real life often depends on interpretation, and on which side of the current debate you might happen to be on.

The text in the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

One of the things that people often miss is that the direction of this law is to Congress. As written, it reflects the things that governments might want to do to us – it doesn’t actually address things that we might do to each other as private citizens.

There are a few legal restrictions on the freedom of speech, but there are many other ways to restrict speech. This book discusses real cases of where the freedom of speech has come under attack or into question, and by personalizing these stories provides a way for us to appreciate both the strengths and the limitations of those few brief words in the Constitution.

The author has grouped the situations where the “rubber meets the road” as far as free speech is concerned into some very challenging situations. The issues that he covers are: censorship, whistleblowing, bigotry, politics and culture. Because free speech is challenged in different ways and through different means in each of these instances.

One of the contradictions that is made unflinchingly clear, we may have freedom of speech, however, it may be abridged, or chilled or denied. What we don’t have (and generally shouldn’t) is the freedom from the consequences of that speech. And whether we like it or not, the challenges to our freedom of speech may very well be people who firmly believe that they are defending it.

Or us.

Reality Rating A: It’s the way that the author has personalized the abstract that brings this book to life. He doesn’t just talk in glowing platitudes about the freedom of speech, he takes deep dives into the hearts and minds who have fought, or are being fought, to protect or abridge that right.

And he also dissects some of the ways that free speech hurts, and why that makes it even more necessary.

The first section immediately drew me in, because it covered censorship, particularly as it applies to library book bannings and challenges. This is a subject with which I’m intimately familiar. At one of my former places of work, I was the person tasked with responding to challenges and overseeing the formation and the work of the staff assigned to serve on challenge committees and make recommendations.

absolutely true diary of a part time indian by sherman alexieEven though this is Banned Books Week, the reality is that in today’s climate, books are challenged rather than banned. And it is generally books aimed at a teenage audience, although not always. As the author demonstrates by getting into the cases in Missouri (Slaughterhouse Five), Michigan (Waterland and Beloved), New York State (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and practically everywhere (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). The late-breaking case about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in Tennessee shows that this is very much still happening. The one area where even childrens’ books get challenged is homosexuality, as the cases of Heather Has Two Mommies, And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding make perfectly clear.

But in all these cases, the parental request is not to ban the book from the world, or even the U.S. This is impossible. But it generally comes down to “not their child” or “not for children” or “not at school”. They are often trying to maintain their child’s innocence just a little longer, and resent a school system that prefers to expose their children to what many people believe is the real world.

The striking thing is that such challenges always include the caveat that the person is not against freedom of speech, merely that this one thing, whatever it is, and whether they’ve read it or not, should not be protected, or that their children should be protected from it.

What is also clear in this section is that censorship can take many other, and more insidious, forms. Teachers in schools are unfortunately forced to teach to their state’s tests. And those tests can reflect biases and perspectives that support a political agenda or maintain the status quo. One of the big debates right now is about American exceptionalism and the beneficence of capitalism. Materials that do not reflect the desired perspective can be excised from the curriculum, and even where the teachers have limited freedom to teach from materials that are outside the curriculum, they may be squeezed out of those lessons by the unrelenting pressure of time to prepare their students for the tests.

Should we learn how the rest of the world views us while we are in high school, or should such knowledge wait until adulthood? Of course, with the prevalence of echo chambers on the internet, if we don’t seek out views that challenge our own, we may never find them.

The chapters on whistleblowers and the cost to those who choose to expose wrongdoing in organizations of which they are a part, especially when those organizations are the government, is chilling. The press may have freedom, and speech may be free, but the cost to individual whistleblowers is life-changing in a catastrophic way. And yet, a free society needs people who are willing to shine lights into dark places and risk the excoriation, persecution and sometimes prosecution that follows. By interviewing less famous whistleblowers, the author shines a light on how speech can be suppressed by the chilling effect of a threat to one’s job, one’s security, one’s personal freedom. And it gives us a little light into why people do it anyway.

Each section is like the two I have described. The author illustrates this abstract concept of freedom of speech by giving us real people and real situations to follow and empathize with. The sections on bigotry, hate speech and conspiracy theorists are particularly chilling, at least in part because those are areas we often feel squidgy about.

I found the last section particularly riveting. The story is about a very edgy artistic director at Theater J, an often flying-on-the-edge of controversy theater at the Jewish Community Center in Washington D.C. The art director put on challenging productions that often sold out, but equally often asked questions about Jewish themes and Israel’s place in the world and some of its past acts and policies that made some people very uncomfortable, out of a fear that questioning Israel’s actions might erode Israel’s U.S. support in Congress. The Q&A sessions after the productions were intellectually challenging and provocative. But because some of those plays shone a harsher light on some of Israel’s acts than certain conservative felt was desirable, there was a lot of push-back from potential donors to the Theater’s parent organization. We see the increasing pressure, as fears about money and perceptions that the Theater may be willing to go further out than its organization feels it can tolerate, create more and more artistic compromises. Speech may be free, but the cost to exercise it is not.

In writing this review, I took a look to see what had happened to the artistic director. He was fired, after 18 years as artistic director, because he wasn’t willing to back off from that intellectually challenging edge. He’s started another theater company elsewhere in DC, but his story shows that the cost of standing on that ledge of freedom of speech can be high.

If you are interested in putting human faces and voices to that abstract concept of freedom of speech, read this book.