Shades of gray – life in a future pandemic, memory observation, conservation of coral reefs and more



Sea of ​​peace
Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, 2022 ($ 25)

Take away the speculative skin of Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel – time travel, lunar colonies, the Moebius strip of a plot that nonetheless sticks together to the very last page – and what’s left is something much more vulnerable: a story about grief. In this moment of unbearable negative space, violent pandemic disruptions and staggering stagnation, Mandel wrote a eulogy for our half-lived years.

Sea of ​​peacewhich forms a free triptych along with Mandela’s last two novels, Glass hotel and Station Eleventh, opens with a scene of exile: it is 1912, and Edwin St. John St. Andrew, the recently deported son of a wealthy British family, “bears the burden of his double holy name across the Atlantic, a steamer.” Its target is the east coast of Canada. He has no specific plans, no real sense of purpose, and eventually he will find himself on the other side of the country, wandering through the woods in British Columbia, where in flashes of eccentricity are the first hints of the true scope of this novel. in space and time are revealed.

In the following sections the story jumps from Edwin’s story to almost modern New York (where Mandela wrote this novel during the COVID pandemic, the sound of ambulance sirens was probably sometimes almost a constant companion), then to the future lunar colony, with a few stops along the way. At first, all that holds these different threads together is the feeling that something is wrong, an almost imperceptible tear in the fabric of time. Eventually the threads begin to intersect, and it becomes impossible not to continue reading to see how these storylines will converge.

The most important and direct of the narrative threads of the novel concerns a writer named Olive Llewellyn, who at the first meeting with her temporarily left her family in one of the lunar colonies to come to Earth on a book tour on the eve of a new global tour. pandemic. To her credit, Mandel makes no effort to be grumpy – it’s clear that many of Olive’s experiences reflect her own, from having to go through countless weird interview questions (“What’s your favorite alibi?” One of the interviewers enthusiastically asks Olive as if we all carry in our back pockets in case of emergencies) to the overwhelming heaviness of days spent on the road and the simple desire to just go home. These passages alone are worthy of admission not so much for the voyeuristic extrapolation of how much this book is truly disguised as memoirs, but for a perfect description of the life of the writer both before and during COVID.

The last few months have seen what could be called the first complete generation of pandemic novels – books like Neil Stevenson Stopping shockHanya Yanagihara To heaven and Sequoia Nagamatsu How high we rise in the dark. Whether these books were written before the COVID era or not, they are now destined to be read in the shadow of the present, like any novel released between 2017 and 2021 that even touched on authoritarianism was inevitably read in the shadow of Trump.

In some cases, the plagues that haunt this new crop of books are little more than scenery, a kind of nod to the low fear of many of us that perhaps this is what the future will look like: one vicious contagion after another. Sometimes they are a means of criticizing the insane vulnerability of singles-oriented societies fighting disasters that require, above all, a shared response. In stories like Lawrence Wright End of Octoberthey are food for militants: pathogenic microorganisms act as supervillains.

Mandela’s work occupies a decidedly introspective end to this spectrum. As in her previous novels, there is no harsh science fiction Sea of ​​peace, without detailed explanations of disease biomechanics or time travel physics. Sometimes the tracking device may appear due to the need for a narrative, or the character may briefly note the rules of the game before slipping through time, but all of these descriptions are firmly subordinated. It is the emotional and psychological consequences of these technologies and disasters that are primarily concerned with the novel. When Olive sits on an airship with three masks on her face, afraid to bring a new disease home to her husband and daughter, the airship travels to the moon only tangentially. As she stretches through another virtual lecture into a hall full of holograms, every reader reminisces about the last meeting at Zoom and the dimly dehumanizing feeling of being introduced to the cheap facsimile of the world.

There are many of Mandela’s trademark moves: the interweaving of storylines, a quiet anti-utopian setting and, of course, the deadly pandemic as a story. But perhaps most of all these things, the most common and powerful motif in Mandela’s fiction is the adherence to the idea of ​​the need for art and beauty. Her characters can suffer from many diseases, but none is more debilitating than aesthetic poverty, no more unbearable than living in shades of gray.

Art seeps through every layer of this story. As soon as Edwin arrives in Canada, he takes painting classes. Violin notes resonate through the centuries, as do the words of the novel within the novel. Shakespeare’s work becomes a cameo, as it was before in Mandela’s books. Art is a means by which the characters decipher the mysteries of their own existence, in some parts of the novel quite literally.

Maybe that’s why Sea of ​​peacefor all its clever narrative and science fiction inventions, it is essentially an emotionally destructive novel about human connections: who we are with each other – and who we should be.

In the middle of the book, a pandemic tears apart populations both on Earth and in distant colonies, and several of Mandela’s characters are forced to lead a numb inner life as exhausted and frightened as many of ours over the past couple of years. These are the small details of this self-imposed cocoon, these hollowed-out moments that cut most deeply. The most horrific scene of the novel, lasting only a few lines and incidentally told, involves a small child who is in the closure of a pandemic, talking to an inanimate object, trying to make friends. I liked each of Mandela’s books (full disclosure: she was very good to tell about my first novel), but none struck nerves like this one.

Despite this burden, Sea of ​​peace it’s a quick read. At the line level, verbs do most of the hard work, and the overall plot, which includes a huge bureaucracy of time travel, is delicious and just dangerous. Constant movement both inside the scenes and in the grand scope of the novel. As the pandemic rages in the real world, some scenes will seem too close. But after so much time spent away from each other, after such a distance, intimacy in its own way becomes a balm, a reminder that we were together, even alone.-Omar El-Akkad

Omar El Akkad – Canadian-Egyptian journalist and author of novels What an amazing paradise (2021) and American War (2017).


Candy House
Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 2022 ($ 28)

Like his prequel, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s latest book is read not quite as a novel or collection of short stories, but as a fragmentary work of art with many angles and styles. This time, a technology called Own Your Unconscious – a headset that allows people to view their memories or see others – is an arrogance that brings together old and new characters in New York, Chicago, Southwest America and elsewhere when they experiencing grief, love, parenthood, sex, addiction and trauma. Cheerful, soulful and cerebral, Candy House asks compelling questions about authenticity and confidentiality in the age of surveillance capitalism. –Adam Morgan

Life on the rocks: The future for coral reefs
Julia Berwald
Books Riverhead, 2022 ($ 28)

Ocean scientist Julie Berwald is adamant about this Life on the rocks is not an obituary. Threats to coral reefs are scary and multi-layered, but there are solutions. Berwald goes beyond conventional methods (conservation, safe sunscreen) to describe the unlikely efforts of special operations veterans who became reef doctors, marine scientists and a conglomerate candy company. One idea involves spraying seawater into the clouds over the reefs to reflect more solar radiation. Every reading chapter tends to be optimistic, but key issues remain unresolved. Are corals resilient enough to withstand ocean warming, or are these “success stories” disguised before death? –Maddie Bender

I want to print: The Reluctant Scientific Author, 1500–1750
Nicole Howard
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022 ($ 55)

The advent of the printing press was a difficult milestone for scientific communication. Fearing theft of intellectual property, information overload, and ill-prepared readers (Descartes challenged the “cavils of inexperienced instigators of controversy”), early scholars sought to embrace the possibilities of print by avoiding its pitfalls: Huygens published his discovery of the Annals; Galileo strategically distributed peer-reviewed copies of his work, elevating it to the court mathematician Medici. Analysis by history professor Nicole Howard offers stunning glimpses behind the scenes of foundational scientific texts. –Dana Dunham

Shades of gray – life in a future pandemic, memory observation, conservation of coral reefs and more

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