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Fictional Pandemics: Background information when reading Sea of Tranquility

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Sea of Tranquility

A novel

by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel X
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 272 pages

    Mar 2023, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Fictional Pandemics

This article relates to Sea of Tranquility

Print Review

Emily St. John Mandel's Sea of Tranquility features a character Mandel seems to have based loosely on herself: an author named Olive Llewellyn who is famous for writing a novel about a pandemic. Pandemics are a common trope in novels, particularly in the speculative or science fiction genre, with authors considering different imagined scenarios as to how a pandemic might occur and who might be affected. The following is a list of recent novels that feature fictional pandemics as a means of exploring social and political issues as well as human behavior.

Covers of books about fictional pandemics

Station Eleven (2014) – Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and one of BookBrowse's Best of the Year in 2014, narrates the aftermath of the fictional Georgia Flu, which has killed 99% of the world's population. The plot features dual timelines — one that unfolds during the very beginning of the pandemic, and another set 20 years later. The latter follows Kirsten Raymonde and the other actors and musicians in the Traveling Symphony, a troupe that moves through the Great Lakes region performing Shakespearean plays. In this storyline, the Traveling Symphony is threatened by a mysterious man called the Prophet and his cult of followers. The novel's title comes from a comic book that is one of Kirsten's prized possessions, which features a similarly dystopian plot with thematic parallels to the events of the novel. Station Eleven was adapted into an HBO miniseries that aired from late 2021 to early 2022.

Severance (2018) – In Ling Ma's debut novel Severance, an illness called Shen Fever has swept through the world, rendering those afflicted with a "disease of remembering." It causes people to essentially get caught in a loop repeating familiar tasks, unable to stop or to communicate with others. Before the pandemic begins, protagonist Candace Chen is stuck in a routine working at a publishing company despite her ambitions to do something more artistic. Candace's efforts to procure a deal with a Chinese manufacturer for her employer's line of Bibles brings the story into sharper relief as a satirical critique of late stage capitalism. Severance won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

The Mother Code (2020) – Biochemist Carole Stivers' debut sci-fi novel is set in 2049 and centered around a pandemic set into motion by the accidental release of a chemical weapon designed by the CIA called IC-NAN. Scientists quickly give up on saving humankind in its present iteration from the deadly disease, and choose instead to genetically engineer a future generation to be immune. The cure will be implanted into fetuses, which will then be raised by robot mothers, since there will be no humans left to care for the babies. A second timeline set 10 years in the future shows the genetically engineered children as they struggle to adapt and thrive in a barren world. The novel considers what it means to be human, to be a mother and to be a representation of the hope for the future of the world.

The Blondes (2015) – In this satirical novel by Emily Schultz, an illness that causes blonde women to become homicidal maniacs has been unleashed on the world, just as protagonist grad student Hazel Hayes has become pregnant with her married professor's child. Hazel narrates the story to her unborn baby, describing the violent acts she has witnessed blonde women commit, and her own efforts to get from New York City to the safety of a secluded cottage in Canada. Through the unique and humorous conceit of the illness affecting only blonde women, Schultz offers incisive commentary on sexism and gender-based expectations.

Wilder Girls (2019) – In her debut young adult novel Wilder Girls, Rory Power depicts a boarding school in turmoil as the result of a mysterious epidemic referred to as the Tox. The students at the school have been quarantined for 18 months, watching as their teachers and classmates became infected. Three friends — Hetty, Byatt and Reese — band together to try to make it through the pandemic, but as they learn more about what lies beneath the surface of their school and the island on which it is located, their situation becomes even more dire. Thematically, the novel is distinctly feminist and centered around the heroism of maintaining loyalty toward one's friends, making it a dark but inspiring read for teen girls.

Filed under Reading Lists

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to Sea of Tranquility. It originally ran in April 2022 and has been updated for the March 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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