WellRead’s May 2022 selection was Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel. At first glance, more sci-fi than WellRead’s usual selections, but know that Mandel’s work is often positioned as sci-fi for literary readers (‘sci-fi’ with soul’ being our favourite description). And that her books are primarily concerned with her characters’ psychologies (bogged in technological detail you will not be).
Use these discussion questions to engage with the book further, whether in a book club with friends, or just on your own as you digest the story.
Reading questions for Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel:
- Which character and story did you enjoy the most? Interrogate why you think this was the case?
- Olive gives a series of lectures on post-apocalyptic literature. “What if it always is the end of the world?” she asks. LAter, she reflects, “You wake up married and then your spouse dies over the course of the day; you wake in peacetime and by noon your country is at war.” What do you think Mandel was getting at here?
What role does art play in the novel?
- What would you have done in Gaspery’s shoes? Would you have changed the past to save Olive and help Edwin? How do you think he felt about the consequences of his decisions?
- In what ways do colonisation and its many variations stretch their influence through time in the novel? Is one form seen as more righteous or justified than others in different periods?
The sections of the book set in the future depict a world of simulation that is being talked about more in real-life scientific and philosophical circles. How does this novel’s depiction of a possibly simulated world align with your imagination of it? What do you make of the idea that “A life lived in a simulation is still a life”? Would you change anything about your life now if you knew it wasn’t “real”?
Those who have previously read Mandel or who know about her literary success may have noticed how the novel incorporated autofiction. Discuss.
“The most trenchant and mordantly funny parts of the novel involve all the ways in which, hundreds of years into the future, not much has changed. Whatever the date and state of humanity, there will always be red velvet cupcakes and misogyny.” So observed a Guardian review. How did the future match up to your imaginings of it?
Please note, these questions were written and distributed in May, 2022.