Opinion | Emily St. John Mandel on Time Travel, Parenting and the Apocalypse

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ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

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Before we begin today, we’re getting ready to record the next Ask Me Anything episode. So if you have anything, anything at all you’d like to ask me, send it to [email protected] — again, [email protected] — with “AMA” in the headline.

But for today, I want to go back to a novel that has meant a lot to me, that I read before the pandemic, that I reread after the pandemic, and that I’m not alone in coming back to and coming back to. And that is “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel. “Station Eleven” is published in 2014. It imagines the world after a pandemic has wiped out almost everyone — about 99 percent of the human race. And it has this particular emotional power as a book. It helps you grieve a life you still have. It helps you feel how much could be taken away.

But six years after Mandel published “Station Eleven,” a real pandemic hit — not, thank god, as lethal as the one she imagined, but a pretty profound disruption of human life, globally, nevertheless. And so her book, which was already this beloved international bestseller, it found a second life. She became known as the pandemic writer, as a kind of pandemic profit. “Station Eleven” became an HBO Max limited series, one of the year’s best shows by wide agreement.

And clearly, like the rest of us, Mandel is still thinking about that book. Because her new novel, “Sea of Tranquility,” is very much a meditation on both the themes of “Station Eleven,” but also what it was like to have written that book and then to have lived through what we all lived through — but what she lived through, too — to somehow be seen as someone who predicted what you didn’t quite predict, and should have insight on what you also are now simply trapped in.

So in “Sea of Tranquility,” she is a character who says, after a long discussion about why we love post-apocalyptic fiction so much, “My personal belief is that we turn to post-apocalyptic fiction, not because we’re drawn to disaster per se, but because we’re drawn to what we imagine might come next. We long secretly for a world with less technology in it.” “Sea of Tranquility” is somewhat about pandemics, but it also takes place on a moon colony that people have built after a huge amount of environmental disaster on Earth. Like “Station Eleven,” there’s an elegiac quality to the novel. It makes you feel what you could lose. It makes you miss what you already have or what you currently have.

But differently than “Station Eleven,” it’s a book playing with very profound ideas about the base nature of reality. It’s a time travel book, a book that suggests you might live in a simulation, and a book that wonders what, if anything, would be different if we did. And so it left me thinking about variants of the question Mandel brought up about post-apocalyptic novels. Why are there so many simulation plots right now? Why are there so many multiversal plots? What are we trying to grieve or alter or imagine a life without? Why are we so obsessed with these mechanisms for really feeling the contingency of our own lives? As always, my email, [email protected]

Emily St. John Mandel, welcome to the show.

emily st. john mandel

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

ezra klein

So tell me about one of my favorite topics — the simulation hypothesis. What is it, and how did you get interested in it?

emily st. john mandel

I believe I found it a number of years ago, just in one of those late-night internet rabbit holes. You know, you’re reading an interesting article about the Hadron Collider or whatever, and then you follow a link, and follow a link, and follow a link. And then, it’s 1:00 AM, and you’re reading about the simulation hypothesis. So for anybody who’s not familiar, it’s what it sounds like. It’s the idea that all of our reality is a simulation. Something I love about the idea is that you can find very smart people who will passionately argue either side of that position.

For myself, I take no firm stance, but it was a way for me to make a time travel narrative work once I realized that my new novel was going to be a time travel novel. Because the problem with time travel narratives is, how does it not always just create an infinite loop? You know, if I finish this interview and step into a time machine that takes me to Denver in 1910, I was always going to step into that time machine, and always going to go to 1910 and come back, and it goes around and around.

So a way for me to circumvent that as a novelist was to layer on this whole other level of weirdness, and have a character say, in the year 2400 or whatever it is in the new book, we don’t know why time travel works at all. Shouldn’t it always create a loop? The reason we think it works is that we might be living in a simulation. So that was a way for me to write a time travel novel.

ezra klein

And so in a way, then time travel in your world — in the simulation world — it works a little bit like an author editing a document. You go back, you change a paragraph, and it doesn’t create a recursive time loop. Your document just changes. The data storage simply updates.

emily st. john mandel

Yes, exactly. And you can fix the narrative later on. Whatever you did in chapter 1 doesn’t have to alter the timeline of chapter 14.

ezra klein

But I want to stay in our — like, the stoned 1:00 a.m. internet reading. What do you take to be the best arguments for simulation? Because as you say, very serious people believe this. Elon Musk — I’ve been in a room with him when he said that he believes we’re probably living in a simulation. And I would say he definitely lives his life as if he’s maybe the main character of a simulated video game.

emily st. john mandel

Right.

ezra klein

I actually think it maybe explains more about him than people realize. But what are the arguments for and against it, as you take it?

emily st. john mandel

My memory is that it has to do with the world behaving in a computer-like way. You know, the idea that there are too many similarities between the way our world works and the way we would expect a computer-generated world to work. The counterargument is, there is not enough computing power in the universe to run the simulation.

I don’t know about that. I mean, our undiscovered technologies are undiscovered, so that’s not completely convincing to me. But it was a fun topic to read about at 1:00 a.m. five years ago.

ezra klein

So to prepare for this, we reread Nick Bostrom, the philosopher at Oxford.

emily st. john mandel

Oh, I have a PDF of that somewhere.

ezra klein

It’s very, very good. It’s very fun. But I always think his argument is interesting in being both a good argument for it and a wonderful argument against it, which is — his basic argument is, imagine societies get very advanced, much more so than ours.

We like making video games. I’m simplifying him here. We like making video games. If we could make video games that were universe simulations, we definitely would. If it was costless to do it, we’d make a lot of them. And so the odds are that there’s more simulations than base realities.

And what I’ve always found really funny about that, though, is all these philosophers and computer programmers, I think, think they’re very rational, advanced people. But it’s just folk monotheism on some level, right? You go from old monotheism being that god is a guy with a white beard in the sky, sort of us but bigger — the universe is very familiar in the way it works — to the computer programmer version of that, which is —

emily st. john mandel

Right, god is this bro from the Silicon —

ezra klein

God is a computer programmer, but bigger.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah.

ezra klein

And he would do what we would do, and I would make more simulations, so it’s — I find it sweet, the idea that reality would be so comfortingly familiar.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah. Absolutely. No, you’re onto something there. It is pretty funny. You know, what I ultimately came to is, so what? Which is not to circumvent the conversation. It’s an interesting one. But what is a simulation?

You could say that a city is a much more simulated environment in the terms of being unnatural, than, say, the country — you know, the way water just comes to you through pipes, and all the rest of it. That doesn’t mean that your life is less real in a city than it is in the woods.

And if you extrapolate that, well, would your life be less real in, say, a moon colony with you know, a completely false atmosphere than it would be on Earth? Well, of course not. It’s still a life. I don’t know that our lives are less real in a simulation than they are in — I hesitate to use the term, “real life,” because that’s not quite what I mean here. But you know what I mean — than in a non-simulation. I think our choices still matter, fundamentally. So yeah, it was a really interesting thought experiment, writing this novel.

ezra klein

Something your book got me thinking about was that at another level, we’re definitely all in a simulation. So when I’m looking at you here, my eyes are in a window into the world. They’re receiving light. The light gets turned into electrical impulses, which get turned into information, which my brain decodes in some weird way that we know is predictive and not quite what is actually out there. And that’s true for every sense I have. Like, this is a closed box, basically, that’s getting electrical impulses.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah, absolutely.

ezra klein

And so my reality is always simulated. And that doesn’t seem to me to change its meaning. In some ways — and this is maybe going to thread through our conversation — that mysteriousness of it, the fact that I can’t master it, always seems to me to be a source of some meaning.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah, and the way that, right, we’re all running our own in-house simulations, so to speak. And I suppose the people with whom you’re most compatible — friends and acquaintances you like — have enough of a Venn diagram overlap on the simulations, that you see the world in close enough of a way, whereas people at the opposite end of the political spectrum, for example, they’re running a completely different simulation and you fundamentally do not live in the same reality. Yeah, it’s an interesting idea. I like it.

ezra klein

One of the fun things about “Sea of Tranquility,” to me, was this question of how many simulations do we all live in simultaneously? You’ve mentioned [ cities is a simulation, but the moon colonies are a kind of simulation in there. And so you, of course, spent some time thinking about what would and wouldn’t be different about living in a colony with simulated skies and simulated atmosphere. What did you come to on that?

emily st. john mandel

It would not be that different. You know, I mean, how different is that than — this is a horrible example, but stay with me here. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being on the strip in Las Vegas with the outdoor air conditioning jetting down from behind the potted plants, it doesn’t feel that different than how I imagine that sort of artificial atmosphere would feel.

I think you would just be living your life in a way unrecognizable from life in any other place or any other city. I don’t know how often you would think about the dome over your head. That would just be part of your world that would blend in with surroundings that you’d completely take for granted, in the same way you take sidewalks for granted.

But on the question of what is a simulation, the book opens in 1912, where there’s this character who’s very closely modeled on one of my great-grandfathers who comes over to Canada from the U.K. Is colonialism a kind of simulation? That’s something I found myself thinking about.

Because it seems to me that the tragedy of colonialism has to do with a false narrative, which, in Canada, where I’m from, that was the narrative of the empty land — this idea that here was a land just there for the taking. And it was the falseness of that idea within which people were operating that turned it into a bloodbath and this just unspeakable tragedy, because, of course, there were people already there.

So yeah, if you’re living in the service of a false idea, is that a kind of simulation? That was something I found myself thinking about a lot with, particularly, the historical fiction sections in this book.

ezra klein

And not to overdraw the analogy, but aren’t we living through a version of that right now? Something we’ve been covering a lot on the show — and obviously, everybody in the world is paying attention to — is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which is very much based on a simulated version of history, a series of stories that he is telling, that whatever his level of authentic belief in them is, he has actually used them to alter reality. People are now living in the simulated reality —

emily st. john mandel

Right, right.

ezra klein

— of Ukraine belongs to Russia, and as such, Russia is acting like Ukraine belongs to Russia and its possession there for the taking. So I think there’s really something to that — I mean, this idea that stories become a simulation and we act as if they are the reality.

emily st. john mande
l

Yeah, absolutely. And then where it gets slippery is we’re all living inside some narrative or another. We all have an idea of who we are, and what kind of life we’re living, and what the world is around us. I don’t know, how do you tell if your simulation is real? What does it mean to be real in those conditions?

ezra klein

And I wonder if we need the simulation. So there’s a — I’m pretty sure it’s a Ted Chiang story. And if it’s not, forgive me.

emily st. john mandel

If it’s not, it should be.

ezra klein

If it’s not, it should be. But it’s a story, basically, about a technology that allows the world to be recorded through your eyes. You can actually go back and see everything, all the time.

emily st. john mandel

That’s the new Jennifer Egan novel, too.

ezra klein

That is. Yes. “The Candy House” does this, too.

emily st. john mandel

“The Candy House,” yeah. Same idea.

ezra klein

Yes, which is an amazing novel.

emily st. john mandel

It’s great. I love it.

ezra klein

Yeah. But his point, which also tracks how memory works in the mind — I mean, memory is this effort of constructing stories, and we alter it to create the stories we need to construct to live a social life — is that if we couldn’t simulate our past anymore, if we couldn’t shape it into story, it would be really destructive. And I think that’s true.

emily st. john mandel

You mean in the sense that it would just be chaotic and disorganized and just kind of harm us from the past?

ezra klein

I think, but also it might be annihilating to our sense of self. I mean, the self is a story of the things we’ve triumphed over, and the things we’ve lost, and the things we’ve done wrong, or the things maybe we did do wrong but don’t want to believe.

And we have to, on some level, be the heroes of that story. We have to be able to extract meaning from it. And I wonder, if we had too close a record of what really happened, if we’d be able to do that, if it would break our meaning-making faculties.

emily st. john mandel

It might. Yeah. Because I was thinking as you were talking, so much of happiness depends on what kind of story you’re telling about yourself. So you’re right. If there were very clear evidence that your story was wrong, then that could be devastating. I could see it.

ezra klein

One of the tensions, it seems to me, in the way we intuitively treat the psychic trauma of learning life is a simulation is that we’re constantly escaping from life into simulations. I’m a parent, and the worst thing I do as a parent is find my kids overwhelming and start looking at my phone, knowing that will not bring me happiness.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah, same.

ezra klein

Knowing that nothing on my phone —

emily st. john mandel

You just have to leave sometimes.

ezra klein

You just have to leave.

emily st. john mandel

Sometimes that’s the only way to do it.

ezra klein

But video games, television, books — I remember it as a real epiphany in my adult life, realizing that I used books to escape from my family when I was young. It was a safe way nobody could talk to me. And how do you think about that drive for escape into simulation?

emily st. john mandel

As a novelist, I’m in favor of it. Please escape into my book.

But you know what, for me, that actually speaks to my experience of writing a novel, not just reading a novel, where — in my previous life, I was a dancer. That was what I went to school for. It was contemporary dance. That is very much a group activity. You’re there with a crowd of people who you have to deal with at class at 8:30 a.m. in the winter. And it’s cold and kind of miserable. And you have to remind yourself you love it.

When I started writing seriously in my early 20s, there was something about being able to escape into the grand project of a novel, which is to say, into this kind of private world where I control everything. And it’s up to me what the characters do. The plot is completely in my hands. There’s something about that that can feel like refuge.

And it certainly did when I started writing, which was a very difficult time in my life. I felt an echo of that writing “Sea of Tranquility,” which I got into in earnest in March 2020, which was hell in New York City. That was just a really objectively terrible time. So I was very aware, writing in this book, of — I don’t know if irony is quite the right word — but the parallels in talking about assimilation in a novel, which is obviously a simulation, which we escape into at will, both as readers and writers.

ezra klein

And you wrote this book, which to my knowledge is the first one with a pretty clear Emily St. John Mandel character.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah.

ezra klein

And you wrote at the time when there was the least control — I’m psychoanalyzing you now, so tell me to —

emily st. john mandel

Everybody does. Go for it.

ezra klein

— screw off.

But you do it at the time when there’s the least control over your own real life, right? You’re writing, as I understand it, during the pandemic. And I wonder if there’s something to that that — I mean, you escaped into a much more personal kind of novel writing, of constructing the world that some version of yourself lived in at a time when the world had become totally uncontrollable and non-manageable. And I wonder what it was like to toggle between those realities — the world you could control, that you had a version of yourself in, and the world that you lived in and couldn’t.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah, there’s probably something to that. There was a feeling of toggling between the reality of lockdown and the reality of constant travel, which had been my experience right up until the pandemic. Like, I traveled right up to the end.

Yeah, those sci-fi autofiction sections, which for any listeners who do
n’t know the term — autobiographical fiction — which I think of personally as fiction that’s just slightly more obviously based on the life of the writer. I think we always draw from our own experiences in our fictional characters.

My thinking there was — so to back up a little bit, this was probably about two or three months before the pandemic. I started working on these little fragments of autofiction about an author on tour. And where that came from is that on the one hand, I feel immense gratitude for getting to live this life.

At the same time, people say such interesting things to me when I’m on the road. And by interesting, I just mean sexist, really. I should just stop euphemising here. And I’d wanted to write about some of my crazier interactions, because they were just kind of weird and fascinating and often bordered on surrealism.

So I’d started writing these fragments, but then the pandemic hit, and I decided to write a time travel novel. And I thought, well, maybe it’ll be kind of interesting to put this through the lens of sci-fi, and have that author on the road in the year 2300, and then going back home to a moon colony. So it was partly that.

It was partly also just a desire to write about Covid-19 and what it was like being a parent in the pandemic, both the existential terror, but also just the logistics of it — you know, the reality of trying to do work while keeping a small child sane, and attempting to impart some gesture toward education during those months.

ezra klein

It’s really beautiful how you write about parenting in “Sea of Tranquility.” And one of the things that happened for me during the pandemic — so my son was born roughly exactly a year before the pandemic hit. So he was one when it hit. And then we had another child about six months ago.

And it changed my sense of the pandemic, but I was surprised some other things that it changed that I wanted to ask you about, which is having children really changed my sense of words, and what they do and what they can do. And I think I’ve been, you know, really locked in a place with kids during this whole period.

So let me ask you a version of that question, which is, how has — as somebody who works with words, and then watches language develop, how has being a parent changed your sense of what language can and can’t do?

emily st. john mandel

I love that question. It does give you more of a sense of the power of it, I guess, where — I have this terrible memory of just being tired and short-tempered, and saying something a little bit sharp to my daughter when she was probably about two, and just watching her face in a slow-motion collapse. And it’s like a knife to the heart and I will never lose that memory.

So just the care you have to take with a language to not say the wrong, devastating thing that your child will remember forever or that will harm them on some fundamental level.

I have to say, being a parent changed my writing, not necessarily for the better. It did not make me a bolder writer.

I wrote “Station Eleven,” which is a novel where 99 percent of the population dies, before I had a child. I don’t think I could write it now because imagining the world ending with your child or your children in it is just orders of magnitude more terrible than imagining it ending when you don’t have a child.

And that’s not to suggest in any way that people without children don’t have these deeply meaningful relationships. Of course, they do. But it’s just a different thing.

ezra klein

Kids, for me, have shook my faith in language in a way I didn’t expect it to. I’m really struck by how much language obscures for them. My son is three. He’s got a lot more language than he did a year ago.

And I’m not sure what he’s able to tell me is more authentic than it was a year ago. I really watched the way language forces him to put a story to feelings that maybe don’t need a story, or where he doesn’t really know what the story of them are.

Sometimes I’ll watch him reach for something.

It’s clearly not why he’s upset today, but it’s an understood reason why he can be upset in general. And it really makes me wonder how much we do it as adults. We’re just better at it, so the seams in our storytelling become less visible.

emily st. john mandel

That’s something that I talk about a lot with my daughter, who is now six — because, you know, big feelings are big. This idea that it’s OK if you don’t know why you’re upset. And that really scares her. It really freaks her out.

So I wonder if — I don’t want to suggest there’s something limiting about language. Because that’s all we have to interface with the world. But there’s something about learning language that I feel like it makes them more scared of the chaos that lies around language, the things that you can’t say, or can’t explain, or can’t express, just this idea of free-floating angst. Not being able to tell the story is scary to them.

ezra klein

In some ways, it’s scary to me, right? The feeling of not being understood is really hard. And you see that with children in a really deep way — that frustration of not being understood. But as somebody who spends my whole life trying to be understood and trying to make others comprehensible for understanding, it’s really painful.

And the funny paradox of language, to me, is it makes us so much more understood, and at the same time, given the power it gives us, the idea that there are still things that we cannot make other people understand becomes somehow more frustrating because now it feels like our fault.

emily st. john mandel

Right. Is that why we write books? That might be. I’m just going to spend 300 pages trying to get you to understand the feeling.

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ezra klein

One of the things I loved — so to prepare for this, both myself and my producer, Annie Galvin, we read “Station Eleven” and read “Sea of Tranquility.” And one of the things that was really profound about it that Annie said was that reading those books is like pre-grieving a sick person who we know will die, where the sick person is Earth. And I’m curious if that idea of pre-grieving — of trying to use language to attend to a sense of coming sorrow — resonates for you.

emily st. john mandel

Absolutely. I feel that a lot, which I don’t mean to sound maudlin. But do you ever have the feeling of grieving the present moment, where you know, you’ll be in a great conversation, or you’re sitting with your friend who you’re not going to see again for several weeks, or it’s just one of those magical evenings where the lighting is great, and everybody’s wonderful, and there’s music playing, and you feel like you’re sort of floating?

And that moment of sadness when you realize that it’s going to be gone and you’re going to miss it — I feel that all the time. And I don’t mean to suggest a sad life or anything like that. But yeah, that’s very present for me.

ezra klein

It reminds me of the Buddhist idea that happiness is so intimately connected to sorrow. The more you attach to happiness, the more can be and will be taken from you. And it’s the resistance to that taking that causes so much pain.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah, that makes sense. Because I don’t want to blunt myself to those moments, like tell myself it’s OK that they’ll be gone, because that devalues that beautiful moment in some way.

ezra klein

So because I don’t know that everyone hearing this will have read your books, I wanted to ask you to read two passages — one from “Station Eleven,” and one from “Sea of Tranquility” — that I really love and I think get to this feeling of pre-grieving that I want to talk about. So could you read “An Incomplete List” from “Station Eleven“?

emily st. john mandel

I would love to. That is my favorite chapter for readings. OK, let’s see. “An Incomplete List.”

“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights.

No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuels for the generator ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years.

No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages.

No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens. No more electronica, punk, electric guitars. No more pharmaceuticals.

No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light. No more looking down from 30,000 feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment.

No more airplanes. No more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position. But no, this wasn’t true. There were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings.”

Can we talk about time machines? Reading that passage takes me back to the “Station Eleven” tour. That was the passage I always read because it was always my favorite chapter. And when I read it, it feels like a kind of transport, like I’m back on 100 different stages, reading that and — yeah, to a lot of different crowds.

ezra klein

I love that passage so much, and it always moves me so much. But just on that point of time machines, I read a piece recently about art as time batteries. And this idea, which I think — it really works for me for music — that certain kinds of art hold time in them, and that when you come to them again, you get to spend a little of that battery energy.

There’s music I hear that will just — it holds some other experience in it. And every time I play it, I get to have a little bit of the experience again. And I found it to be a really powerful idea.

emily st. john mandel

Absolutely. Yeah. There’s this one R.E.M. song that every time I play it, I’m transported back to being 18 years old, walking to the grocery store in winter in this one neighborhood I lived in for a few months in Toronto. And that was the song I would always listen to.

ezra klein

Yeah, it’s so powerful. There’s another passage in “Sea of Tranquility,” the passage about the burr that I’d love for you to read. And to set this up, this scene takes place in the year 2203, and the character here is the author who lives in a colony on the moon, but is in the middle of a book tour on planet Earth.

emily st. john mandel

OK, sure.

“In the Republic of Texas, the next afternoon, she wanted to go for a walk again, because on the map, her hotel, a La Quinta that faced another La Quinta, a parking lot between them, was just across the road from a cluster of restaurants and shops. But what the map didn’t show was that the road was an eight-lane expressway with no crosswalk and constant traffic. Mostly modern hovercraft, but also the occasionally, defiantly retro, wheeled pickup truck.

So she walked along the expressway for a while with the shops and the restaurants shining like a mirage on the other side. There was no way to cross without risking her life. So she didn’t. When she got back to her hotel, she felt something scratching her ankles.

And when she looked down, her socks were spiked with little birds — astonishingly sharp, black-brown stars like miniature weapons that had to be extracted very carefully. She set them on the desk and photographed them from every angle. They were so perfectly hard and shiny, that they could have passed for biotech.

But when she pulled one apart, she saw that it was real. No, real wasn’t the word for it. Everything that can be touched is real. What she saw was that it was a thing that grew — a cast-off from some mysterious plant they didn’t have in the moon colonies. So she wrapped a few of them in a sock, and carefully stowed the sock away in her suitcase to give to her daughter, Sylvie, who was five and collected that kind of thing.”

ezra klein

Something I love about both of those passages is their focus on small things. The burr — I mean, I don’t think about burrs. And to the extent I do, it’s not usually positively. The fluorescence of the pool in the “Station Eleven” passage.

One of my favorite lines in all literature is from Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” where her narrator says in a letter to his son, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” I’ve actually thought of getting that tattooed.

But it’s so hard to give it the attention you know it deserves. And this feels like such a signal struggle. And as somebody who clearly thinks a lot and maybe is able to pay it the attention it deserves, why do you think that is? Why is it hard to see it now?

emily st. john mandel

It’s hard to be alone with your thoughts, which means that we do pick up our phones when we’re alone. That’s part of it. Sometimes I don’t want to observe. Sometimes I’m traveling and I desperately miss my daughter. And I look at Twitter just to feel kind of numb, you know, is the truth of the matter. Just get me out of reality a little bit, so I handle it better.

But writing is something that forces me to pay attention in a way that I think is probably good. I feel like that’s something writing fiction has given me is — I don’t know if more of a capacity for paying attention, but more of a desire to pay attention when I’m trying to think about what’s real, which is slippery because we were just talking about simulations.

But maybe a better way of putting it — what makes a scene feel real? Like, what is the real thing? What is the light
and the pool or the weird, hard little star called a burr that gets caught in your sock in Texas? What’s the thing the character notices that says something about the character and is a way of noticing the world? That’s what it is for me.

ezra klein

Is that real to you as you move through the world? It’s something I love so much in how fiction is written, that always feels false to me, as a person moving through the world — that the characters walk into these rooms, and what they see is the snarl of thread on the beautiful blue shirt of the person standing in the background, and it transport — It’s like a lot of Proust madeleines?

And I feel like I’m just blundering through the world, barely seeing anything. I can’t even find the things I’m actually looking for when I’m looking for them. It has often created the sense of instability in me, in my perception of, is everyone else walking around seeing the way the shadows fall on the wall except for me?

Or is nobody doing that, and that’s what makes the novelist so good at their job?

emily st. john mandel

That’s interesting. You know what, I think photography actually gave me a lot in that way. A friend of mine gave me a camera when I was having a bad time. I was like 20 or so, and just marooned in the wrong city and recently heartbroken, and everything was hard.

And he gave me a camera, and I found real comfort in a time when everything on the macro level of my life felt terrible, and focusing on these little micro details.

And I think something about that might have helped in terms of paying attention to the details of the world, where if I’m walking with a camera, which I always am now, because we’ve all got phones, there’s one part of me that’s always looking for the interesting overlooked thing.

And sometimes it’s just a weird little detail. Like, I love seeing surfaces in urban environments that have lot of layers and things going on, like a doorway that has five years’ worth of graffiti and stickers and interesting archeological layers. I love that kind of thing, like seeing if there’s something interesting I could notice in that. And I think that’s the same instinct that I use in writing fiction.

ezra klein

So I’ve been thinking about your books and attention, and the way the background calamities of the plots — the pandemic in “Station Eleven,” the environmental crisis that sends so many people to live in space colonies in “Sea of Tranquility” — help the reader pay attention to what could be lost on Earth. And then, I happened to see — I don’t know if you’ve seen this yet — “Everything Everywhere All At Once“?

emily st. john mandel

Not yet. It’s on my list, though. I’ve heard it’s amazing.

ezra klein

Remarkable movie, but it’s multiverse fiction. There’s a lot of simulation fiction out there right now, including yours. There’s time loop fiction, like “Palm Springs.” There just seems to me right now to be a huge boom in multiverse and simulation plots.

And I was musing about this on Twitter, and the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen had this interesting idea about it, where he said, “If Greek tragedy is the expression of the worldview that things are fated and fixed, multiverse and alternative tell stories are an expression of a worldview of deep contingency in the shape of your life.”

And it also occurred to me that being aware of contingency is a way to force yourself to pay attention, to realize like this all could not have happened, and it all could go away. Do you think there’s something to that?

emily st. john mandel

I do. And I find myself thinking if part of this is a reaction to the pandemic. I’m just thinking aloud here. But if our interest in post-apocalyptic fiction over the past 15 years or so has to do with a certain ambiguity around how we feel about our technology, because that’s what’s changed in the last 15 years, which I believe it is — I think our ambivalence around technology explains a lot about our interest in post-apocalyptic fiction.

If that’s true, I wonder if our interest in time-weirdness, time loops, contingencies, multiverse — if that maybe is a reaction in some way to the two years we’ve just lived through, where — I don’t know about you, but I run the counterfactuals all the time about the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What if officials had taken those early reports of this terrifying new virus in Wuhan seriously? What if that hadn’t been suppressed and hadn’t been allowed to spread around the world and change everything, and put all of us in this state that felt like suspended animation?

Something that’s come up a lot, as I’ve been traveling in the service of “Sea of Tranquility,” is people talk about how the pandemic has warped their sense of time. And it’s something about, particularly the stasis of the early period where, we were just kind of stuck at home.

And I remember this bookseller. I think it was in Washington D.C. She was telling me that she’d had a birthday during the pandemic and didn’t quite believe it— like didn’t believe that she was the next age. It’s like because it felt like time wasn’t moving away it was supposed to. And at the same time, you know like, I was not a time travel writer before.

Neither was my friend, Emma Straub, who just published a time travel novel. I know of other literary novelists writing time travel novels. And then, right, we have the explosion of multiverses. Yeah, there might be something there — that it’s hard in a moment like this not to think through the contingencies and the counterfactuals.

ezra klein

You have a great — I want to go back to the idea of post-apocalyptic fiction because you have a great vignette, in “Sea of Tranquility,” of different characters musing or remembering musings about why we have so much post-apocalyptic fiction now. And it got me thinking about it.

And one of the things I wonder about the popularity of this kind of fiction is that I think people understand that we could lose everything, that climate could change everything, that nuclear war could end everything, that a pandemic can end everything. And yet, we also feel how hard it is to act as if we could lose everything. We say it and we don’t believe it.

You have this wonderful line in “Sea of Tranquility,” describing the beginning of a plague there. “We knew it was coming, and we were breezy about it. We deflected the fear with careless bravado.”

And I think there’s something about the attraction of post-apocalyptic stories right now as trying to force us to feel something we believe we should be more able to feel. Because if we’re more able to feel it, we could more ably act on it.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah, what I like about that is it’s adjacent to, but not the same thing, as the most common theory about it, which is that our interest in these stories has to do with our anxiety about the incredibly fraught times we live in, to which the rejoinder, which — you know, I gave all of my “Station Eleven” lecture. It’s all in there. All the best parts are in
there. The rejoinder to that is we’ve always felt like the world is ending. But I like your version better. I’ll have to think about that.

[MUSIC]

ezra klein

One way “Station Eleven” and “Sea of Tranquility” felt to me like very different books is that “Station Eleven” — I mean, they are, of course, very different books. But “Station Eleven” seems to me to be asking the question of, what if there’s a pandemic, a calamity, and everything changes?

And “Sea if Tranquility” felt to me like it was asking a question that in many ways is more natural, having lived through the period we’ve lived through, which is, what if we lived through a calamity — and it’s less so than the 99 percent death rate of the “Station Eleven” plague, but still much of the Earth became uninhabitable — and nothing really changes? We’re still the same people going about our same lives. Is that how your thinking changed?

emily st. john mandel

It might be. Yeah. Because it was kind of interesting to see what didn’t change in Covid, where hell is still other people. The line in “Station Eleven” — “hell is the absence of the people you long for” was still also true.

Other people are still incredibly annoying. Like, your job bothers you. You stay yourself, I think, is what I’m getting at here. And maybe this speaks a little bit to the things I just didn’t realize writing “Station Eleven,” not having lived through a pandemic — was the degree to which society is disrupted even from a very low mortality rate. And also, yeah, just the things that don’t change, that you know, we’re still fundamentally ourselves, even in periods of catastrophe.

ezra klein

My best friend works on crisis response. He works on refugee crises, wars, famines — I mean, the worst things that happen. And something he always tells me is that you can’t — we otherize people who go through these extremes of human experience so much that people still have to live lives amidst it. They still have to make dinner. They still have to get, you know, their kids dressed in the morning, and somehow they do. That in many ways, the scariest thing about human beings and human society is how much we can get used to.

emily st. john mandel

Absolutely. Yeah. I had a really hard time working for the first three weeks of March in 2020, because I live a mile from a hospital in Brooklyn. And it was just constant ambulance sirens, and just this atmosphere of death, really.

And then, I got used to it and started writing a book. And like, I don’t love that. The work meant a lot to me, but the way you just adjust to these objectively appalling circumstances — it’s both hopeful and deeply troubling in some way.

ezra klein

It connects to something you were saying a few minutes ago about trying to find the small moments that make things feel real. It is, on one level, unbelievably appalling to me that we’ve had around a million Americans die, to say nothing of people globally, of Covid-19. And we just go on.

Our politics are normal and divided in the ways they always were. We didn’t pass anything all that interesting to change the post-pandemic reality. We can’t even find — I mean, I’m a politics person. We can’t even find the coalition to pass the pandemic-preparedness spending we need to pass. It’s all — I would have never imagined we could have so much disruption and death and so little would change.

And at the same time, for a lot of people who went through this, where death did not touch their lives really, really, really directly — when you talk to them about it, I feel that what keeps this period so real are small things people lost — live music, the ability to hug their friends. That the thing that makes it feel different, that time has begun moving again, is the return of these small things.

And it seems to me to add weight to your point that there’s a smallness to what makes life comprehensible, and what makes a moment feel real to us. The big ones — if we absorbed all the bigness all the time, we couldn’t function, so we have to have this more micro scale that we’re operating on.

emily st. john mandel

Absolutely. Yeah, that’s something I think about a lot — is that, look, life is details. It’s getting up at a particular time and preparing breakfast and brushing your child’s hair while she watches PBS Kids. That’s what comprises your day.

And then, your year is made out of days, and your life is made out of years. And there is something to that. I don’t know. To your point, the way that it’s become normal, that some dazzling number of Americans just die every single day of Covid-19, I don’t know how to wrap my head around that. I don’t like that that’s somehow OK with us, or OK enough that we’re going about our lives as if, you know, these crazy number of deaths weren’t just happening.

ezra klein

I’ve reflected a lot on whether that should be as surprising to me as it is. And in a way, it goes back to the idea that we were talking about earlier, that we already live in our own simulations, but never think of it that way. But we will die.

I will die. You will die. Our parents will die. Our friends will die. Our loved ones will die. I can’t even bring myself to say, our children. And we know it. We know it in a way we know nothing else. I don’t know what I will have for breakfast tomorrow, I don’t know what I will have for lunch in two hours, and I know I will die.

And we go on with life as if we don’t. Lunch feels a lot realer to me than death. And I suspect we need to. That otherwise, it would just be paralyzing. I’ve tried to do spiritual practices of more regular confrontation with death, meditating on death. There’s a lot of practices around this. And I find them a little hardcore to do over long periods of time. It’s just a little — you then have to somehow shift back into talking to people who are alive.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah. Right, right.

ezra klein

So maybe it’s not surprising, right? We’re dealing with the fact that everyone will die all the time, and we’re very evolved to not just sit there, never allowing our loved ones out of our sight, because we know one day, we’ll never see them again. We somehow have to go about life.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah. And that’s — you know, we were talking about parenting earlier. One of the profound moments in pregnancy, whether it’s yourself or your loved one, is that there is a first heartbeat. And that implies there’s going to be a last.

And I remember grappling with that before my daughter was born. Like, oh, god, we are talking about a finite number of heartbeats here. And — but being an effective parent requires putting your terror away in a box, and behaving as though the world wouldn’t end if that heartbeat were to end on your watch.

ezra klein

How do you put your terror away? Are you somebody who struggles or struggled with death, anxiety, an exquisite se
nse of mortality? How do you — what are your practices for going on?

emily st. john mandel

Writing fiction where I kill off the entire population.

There is something about writing fiction that helps me deal with it. I’m not a depressed person. I don’t think about death all the time. But I — yeah, I have always had a really intense awareness of mortality.

I don’t think I’m afraid to die, but I am very afraid of my child dying or anybody who I love. What I fear is the state — if death is a curtain of being on one side and the people I love most in the world being on the other.

And I think I do deal with that through my fiction. You know, there are a lot of ghosts. There are non-linear structures, where — you know, in “Station Eleven,” a character dies on page two or three.

But then we get to come back to them and get to spend the whole book with them, because it’s non-linear. So that might be one way of dealing with it on some level. I write about ghosts in “The Glass Hotel,” which I think I just like the idea of some kind of continuation. And I write about multiverses. You know, what if there’s a universe where she didn’t die? Like, that idea.

ezra klein

I always like hearing about this. I feel like everybody has strategies here that we never talk about. I remember with such clarity the moment as a child I learned what death was and I became nonfunctional for years, basically.

emily st. john mandel

How old were you? Do you remember?

ezra klein

I — not old. Like, seven — something — six, something like that. I mean, I can — I remember the room I was hysterical in.

emily st. john mandel

Oh, wow. OK.

ezra klein

The first house I lived in. And I had an overwhelming fear of death for a very long time. And weirdly, what broke me not of fear of death — I don’t want to die — but of its grip on my life was mystery. I can’t believe that we all just go to heaven. I don’t believe in some of the basic more religious comforts.

But to our earlier conversation about why I don’t buy the simulation hypothesis, I did begin to believe that base reality is so much weirder than we understand it to be. It is so unknowable, that it opens possibility for everything, including death, to be unknowable.

emily st. john mandel

Right.

ezra klein

And somehow, I found I could eventually take some comfort in not knowing, like, true agnosticism. And that eased it a little bit for me, which is, I think, one reason I love reading books about multiverses and time travel. And I find an overly materialist view of being a human being overwhelming. So I need something that injects doubt into it.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah, the beauty of the mystery of the universe. I was raised completely without religion, and I’ve never been a religious person at all. So I’ve never had heaven either. I’ve never had a strong set of ideas about what any kind of afterlife might look like.

But there’s something comforting about the indifference of the universe. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but partly, just for scale. Like, you know, you’re a tiny speck in this absolutely indifferent universe, and that puts your problems into perspective. And yeah, I like the mystery, too. There is this weird kind of beauty in not knowing.

ezra klein

I’ve heard you describe “Sea of Tranquility” as more utopian a novel than “Station Eleven.” “Station Eleven” is post-apocalyptic, and “Sea of Tranquility” — we live in colonies on the moon, and that’s better. We have hover cars. That’s great.

But something that struck me about both books is that the people in them are mostly decent. I know there are exceptions, particularly in “Station Eleven.” But your view of other human beings, particularly under duress, seems relatively sunny. And I wondered if that was — if that felt true to you.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah, you know what? It does. I remember the 2003 blackout in New York City. And that was kind of beautiful. It was super inconvenient, and I remember it being really hot. Like, your A.C. didn’t work. But neighbors who had never spoken to each other gathered outside on the street and played cards by candlelight. Like, it was lovely.

The hurricanes in New York City a few years ago — Irene and Sandy — there was such a coming together to help people who needed help in those moments.

I remember a lot of stories about senior citizens stranded in high rises — like, things like that — and people just mobilizing around the city to help other people.

I do think we have that instinct. I think that some of the stories that we’ve absorbed about catastrophes have given us the wrong idea about how people behave. Like, “Lord of the Flies,” for example — you know, that’s kind of extreme, but I think that scenario is less likely than people kind of working it out. Because most sane people don’t want violence and mayhem and disengagement. They want some kind of security and peace and some kind of connection. I think most of us are searching for connection a lot of the time, and that’s where we’re likely to go in a calamitous circumstance.

ezra klein

It reminds me of this book by Rebecca Solnit, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” which is all about the ways people come together after calamity. As you say, the evidence is really there. We’ve seen it. People don’t just fall into “Lord of Flies” when things are pretty bad.

My sense of what we know is that they fall to “Lord of Flies” when things are a little bit bad and getting worse at a steady rate.

emily st. john mandel

You’d think, right? But then, we go back to the simulation problem.

ezra klein

Yeah, well, tell me, what is the — tell me how you think about those different scales of behavior.

emily st. john mandel

Well, not so much that, but just your comment that you’d think we’d make different choices before things get so bad. But we’re living in different realities, politically, in this country, certainly. And we will not make the right choice, because half of us believe that we’re living in a completely different situation. You know? So I don’t know how to reconcile that. I do know that people help each other when things get really bad. But we don’t avoid the bad thing. We run toward the danger and then help each other out.

ezra klein

I’ve heard you say that a knock on your writing early on was you didn’t pay enough attention to character, and so you really work to do that — work to watch people closely, and think about how they behave. And that seems relevant here.

I know we talked a bit about looking for the details in the scene, but what has your practice of observing other human beings to try to build a model of how people act been like? What have you seen and come to believe that you didn’t before?

emily st. john mandel

As a novelist, I feel like my characters will ring false unless there’s a lot of good and a lot of evil, kind of, in everybody. Evil is actually the wrong word. That’s a little too extreme. But a two-dimensional character has to have both good and bad, or you know, they’re one-dimensional and boring. Yeah, I’ve just always been interested in people.

And that might come from having been extremely shy as a child, and having that thing of feeling like you need to observe other people to understand how to be a person. You know, like, how do you talk to somebody at a party? Let me study the situation. Like, that kind of instinct.

And I do feel like my earliest characters in my earliest books were not as well-developed as they could be. And maybe that’s partly just the process of becoming a better writer, just in the sense that you become better at anything, the more you do it.

So my sixth book is much better than my first. And perhaps character development just goes along with that. But I do find myself fascinated by people just observing them, watching how they interact with each other.

I spend way too much time on Reddit. I like watching how people interact with each other there. It’s often really interesting stories and interesting reactions. I realize that makes me sound a bit like an anthropologist, and maybe you have to be if you’re writing fiction.

ezra klein

We’ve talked a bit about, obviously, simulations and people. I wanted to talk, before we end, a little bit about time travel. And one of the interesting things to me in “Sea of Tranquility,” is that we get time travel, and a point there is agreement, that we mostly can’t do it.

And in that way, time travel becomes a little bit like nuclear weapons. We have it. It’s a quite amazing technology in certain ways, but terrifying, and so there seems to be a relatively potent agreement to not mess with the time stream.

Do you think that’s how it would play out? Like, what would it do to us, I think, psychologically, is what I’m asking. To know that it is possible to travel in time, but not be allowed to. I think that would be really hard.

emily st. john mandel

Yeah. I think that would break us, to go back to the unimaginable hypothetical. Imagine if you lost your child, and the technology existed to go back to the day before and prevent it. You would do anything. You would break into every secure facility, and bribe everybody, and make that happen.

I think it would be psychologically devastating. And therefore, it would have to be secret. You know, it would be this very top-secret program, you know, at some facility somewhere that almost nobody knew about.

ezra klein

I think that’s a good place to come to a close. So always our final question — what are three books you would recommend to the audience?

emily st. john mandel

The first one is a novel that just came out recently from a small press. It’s called “Scary Monsters” by Michelle de Kretser. It’s got a really interesting structure. It’s essentially two novellas. There’s only a very slight overlap, but they’re concerned with the same themes around immigration and xenophobia. And it’s just really kind of harrowing and beautifully written. I really loved it.

The second is a novel that might be the only book I’ve read twice in the last 10 years or so, called “Ill Will,” by Dan Chaon which — for any listeners who are unfamiliar, his last name spelt like “chaos,” but with an N instead of an S.

It’s a really creepy book. It’s incredibly compelling. And yeah, I just — it’s one of those books that stays with you. I think about it all the time. The last one is an older book. It’s called “Suit Française” by Irène Némirovsky. It’s this beautiful, very lucid, and clearly written novel about the Nazi invasion of Paris that was written more or less contemporaneously.

And yeah, it’s just the most startlingly beautiful book. And it’s the book that I’m personally always kind of aiming toward as a writer, in terms of prose style and structure.

ezra klein

Emily St. John Mandel, your new book is “Sea of Tranquility.” Thank you very much. This was a real pleasure.

emily st. john mandel

This was really fun. Thank you.

ezra klein

Thank you for listening. If you want to support the show, you can leave a review in whatever podcast app you’re listening on, or send the show to a friend, family member, a frenemy. It really does help us.

“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Rogé Karma, Annie Galvin and Jeff Geld. This episode is fact-checked by Michelle Harris and Rollin Hu. Original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing and engineering by Jeff Geld. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi, and special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristina Samulewski and Kristin Lin.

[MUSIC]

Karen J. Simmons

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