Martin MacInnes’s third novel, In Ascension, begins in the city of Rotterdam, a decade or so from now. Leigh-Ann Hasenbosch and her sister Helena are the two daughters of Geert, an engineer working for the Dutch water board, the Waterschappen, an organisation that dates back centuries and, in a very practical sense, is responsible for the country’s survival. Geert’s wife Fenna is a brilliant mathematician. Emotionally reserved and physically undemonstrative, she suffers from incapacitating migraines that, together with Geert’s terrifying outbursts of violence, come to define the background of the sisters’ lives.
As the older of the two, Leigh appears to bear the brunt of Geert’s violence, an escalating source of terror and helplessness that leaves her seriously contemplating suicide. It is ironic that the moment of her greatest despair is also the moment of a personal epiphany, a falling-in-love with the sea that cements her connection with her merchant seaman grandfather Johannes and sets her on the path to a future that will come to redefine the boundaries between the known and the unknown.
After studying marine biology at universities in Rotterdam and Bremen, Leigh is offered a place on the Endeavour expedition to the Azores, where a previously unexplored deep-water vent is becoming a matter of excitement both for scientists eager to study the unique life forms that exist in deep-water environments and commercial companies looking for untapped energy reserves. The trench turns out to be deeper than any of their instruments had previously recorded. Stranger still are the unexplained effects it appears to exert over the divers who venture down into its waters, a state of delirium accompanied by a life-threatening compulsion to return to the water. When the leader of the expedition goes missing at sea, the team are finally forced to return to base without him.
A year or two after these mysterious events, Leigh is contacted by Amy, an American scientist who worked with her on board the Endeavour, asking if she would like to become part of a new project, one that would make use of the pioneering research Leigh has been conducting into the development of algae as a possible food source. On arrival in the US, Leigh discovers she will be working for ICORS, the Institute for Coordinated Research in Space. A new kind of propulsion drive is being developed, one that will enable speeds far in excess of what has previously been deemed possible. With enhanced speed comes the possibility of extended space travel. Leigh’s primary role in all this will be to develop a self-sustaining food source capable of providing a crew with essential nutrients throughout the duration of these longer missions.
It is only gradually, and under conditions of increasingly tight security, that Leigh learns the full truth: the mathematics behind the new space drive may be of alien origin. Kick-started by the sensational discovery of an interstellar object of unknown provenance, the mission ICORS is preparing to launch will be travelling to the furthest edge of the solar system, beyond the heliopause and to the send-point of a signal from the old Voyager 1 probe, now apparently far further out into space than it logically should be. Leigh’s development of an in-flight food source is now of primary importance. ICORS has authorised the transfer of genetic material from the single-celled archaeal organisms recovered during the Endeavour project to enhance resilience and longevity in the algae in what is expected to be a “tumultuous mission environment.”
It would be difficult to elaborate on what happens next without spoiling the plot, and in the case of a novel this new and a story so full of nuance and unexpected shifts, I would hate to deny readers the considerable pleasure of discovering its eventual outcome for themselves. Suffice it to say that MacInnes’s expert handling of the plot elements over the considerable span of five hundred pages is an achievement in itself. There are no longueurs, no words for words’ sake; still more impressively, there is no fake jeopardy either, no artificial upping of the ante, no manipulative withholding. Given that the novel is divided into five parts, I guess you could call it a five-act drama, though there is nothing conventional or generic about it. What you have is a story: by turns mysterious, elegiac, tense, thrilling, heartbreaking, and occasionally terrifying, In Ascension is a hero’s journey that might rightfully be described as a modern myth.
A central theme—perhaps the central theme—of this novel is circularity, the manner in which all things are inextricably connected, how even the longest journey, to paraphrase Eliot, will end in its beginnings. When she first begins as a child to become fascinated by microscopic life, Leigh observes that single-celled rotifers found in ice “seemed to challenge the distinction between life and death, annihilating the concept of straight and linear time to suggest something more circular and repetitious instead.” Her mother Fenna, noting her increasing interest in the natural world, tells her about the miraculous migratory journey of the Atlantic salmon, whose deliquescing remains will one day form the nutrients from which its offspring will gather the strength to swim to the sea.
This is an image MacInnes returns to, in various guises, throughout the novel, as he does to the idea arising directly from it: that all life, including human life, is part of one vast ecosystem, presently unknowable and potentially extending beyond Earth’s boundary to the universal. In a key early passage, we see how in giving herself up to the sea, Leigh begins to apprehend the beauty and wonder of “a completely different world, a place of significance and complexity.” Swimming to shore with a newly enhanced sense of her place and value in the world, she experiences a sense of innate connection with the whole of life:
Gathering the objects up, putting on my clothes, I felt I was only now inhabiting a personality, that until I entered these preset shapes I was diaphanous, and this form did not necessarily match up with who, or what, I was.
She is to experience similar epiphanies in the waters off Ascension Island, and in the vast depths of space—it is no accident that the spacecraft that becomes the focus of the latter part of the novel is named Nereus, in Greek mythology the son of the sea god Pontus and the earth goddess Gaia. Diving down into the sea vent during the Endeavour expedition, Leigh suffers a moment of what might be termed existential vertigo when she realises that the bottom of the vent may be as far below her as jet aircraft passing above are high. The likeness of ocean to cosmos is clear to see.
The risk of becoming dislocated from consensus reality also forms part of the metaphor through which MacInnes examines the accelerating effects of climate change, another core theme of the novel—and one that emerges early on, as Leigh’s father Geert becomes increasingly mentally destabilised. The Rotterdam Waterschappen, so long a symbol of civic and national stability, is rapidly losing the ability to regulate the environment in line with human safety. As temperatures rise, the possibility of inundation becomes a daily crisis, and the system of canals and reservoirs on which the city is founded are starting to transform into a malarial swamp. “What had always been a difficult job became impossible” and Geert’s besieged imagination cannot keep pace with the reality.
There are hints that Geert’s outbursts of violence are a symbolic expression of wider human despair at what is happening to the world, an individual sense of helplessness made manifest through an increasing incidence of both mental and physical illness. We see the same link made between physiology and climate change in the second half of the novel, this time filtered through the concept of “Earth loss,” the grief that occurs when a spacecraft passes out of sight of the home planet. Doctors monitoring the crew of the Nereus become especially interested in their involuntary physical responses to Earth loss, such as raised temperature and vomiting. “Allen and the psychologists were audibly excited, theorising that Earth’s disappearance was being treated by the body as a new and terrible disease.” Contemplating these side-effects, Leigh comes to the realisation that everyone still on Earth will be feeling the same. “The planet was less habitable every day,” Leigh says to her crewmate Karius. “Imagine seeing Earth retreat, only instead of viewing it from a ship, you’re still inside it.”
The failed migrations of turtles and birds, the mental illness suffered by Geert, the practical impact of increasing heat and changing weather patterns on human habitation—MacInnes reveals how everything is connected. The theme of interconnectedness extends, in a literary sense, to his continuing dialogue with other major works of SF. One of the key features of science fiction literature is the way it debates itself, a self-referential conversation between works as well as authors which is constantly ongoing. Thus we cannot read the opening act of In Ascension—in which a hyper-efficient, top-of-the-range bathysphere makes an ultimately doomed descent into a bottomless oceanic trench—without thinking of the first act of John Wyndham’s 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes, or observe the fate of the rogue, blue-eyed leader of that mission without being reminded of Sam Neill’s Dr. Weir in Paul Anderson’s film Event Horizon (1997) or Mark Strong’s Captain Pinbacker in Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine. Stefan’s paranoia about the mission being recalled, his insistence that Leigh and the other divers do not tell anyone about the destabilising effects of the rift are also reminiscent of the erratic behaviours exhibited by Hardman and Kerans in J. G. Ballard’s 1963 debut The Drowned World, and their strange, emotional regression to a new Triassic:
Something had got inside us, a compulsion, a desire, a need to return... While the water continued to pull me back in, I was drawn, equally involuntarily, to my past. I returned to the ocean as I returned to my childhood in Rotterdam, to Geert’s inexplicable beatings and to the nights following when Fenna mended me, kneaded me, and ushered me back as best she could.
As the astronauts on board the Nereus reach the furthest limits of their trajectory, Leigh experiences a state of wonder that borders on transcendence, apprehending “the planets, the sun, the moons... as a single curved body drifting through space like the juvenile stage of an aquatic life form.” The imagery is so reminiscent of what is shown in the culminating sequences of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968)—based of course on stories by Arthur C. Clarke—that it cannot be an accident; similarly, the scenes in which Leigh “returns” to Earth by means of a photograph—the same photograph we see in the hands of her sister Helena some thirteen years later—are achingly evocative of some of the most tender passages of Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris.
And the balance between the science and the fiction in In Ascension is also perfectly weighted. As well as being meticulously researched and clearly explained, the scientific concepts that drive the novel feel urgent and timely. In terms of that old science fiction chestnut, “how did we get here from there?” it would be hard to find a novel that draws the line of advancement so compellingly and with such a convincing sense of realism. In his portrayal of a crucial couple of decades in our very near future, MacInnes renders as-yet-unreachable scientific breakthroughs as lived experience.
It is therefore no surprise that he is equally committed to portraying the texture of life at the quotidian level, the individual human experience and the often intractably tangled web of family relationships. The novel’s fifth act, “Ascension,” is especially important in this respect. At this point, the narrative point of view switches from Leigh to her sister Helena, as the latter attempts to come to terms with a major personal loss and to discover the facts surrounding it. Revisiting events from Helena’s perspective is like belatedly discovering that a looking-glass in a private bedroom is actually a two-way mirror: it jolts our perception of reality, forces us to question everything we have come to believe. Reading Helena’s calmer, more measured recollections of the sisters’ childhood, her compassionate yet critical assessment of Leigh’s character and motivations, it is tempting to recast Leigh as an unreliable narrator, though in fact it is equally likely that the two contradictory accounts are exactly what Leigh would contend they are: proof that their experiences were different, and that memory is subjective. “A family is a group of strangers with a destructive desire for nostalgia,” Helena muses, perhaps acknowledging that any biography written by a member of the subject’s own family will inevitably prove flawed.
Helena’s ongoing legal battle with ICORS also throws up an equally pressing set of questions surrounding the mission. The matter of what happened and when remains locked inside a series of nondisclosure agreements and corporate obfuscations, and Helena must finally look elsewhere for personal resolution. Throughout the novel, but in these poignant final chapters especially, MacInnes’s unfussy yet elegant and nuanced descriptive writing provides an equally intense evocation of complex inner states and the constantly evolving beauty of the natural world. The novel’s ending, the apotheosis of circularity, unites two classic science fictional conceits in a manner that is original and blissfully satisfying.
This is a novel of haunting and complex ideas that is also beautifully, effortlessly readable, showing us a different side to MacInnes’s writing than we have perhaps seen in his previous novels: more expansive, more inclusive, and, dare I say it, more joyful. The abstract, aesthetic joy in uniting concepts, in revealing connections, in propelling a thrilling idea as far as it will go is something we have come to expect from MacInnes and forms a defining characteristic of his literary identity. This new book is defined in addition by the simpler, more immediately accessible joy of story, of characters who speak to us personally and whose lives, exploits, and emotions we experience in the gut as well as in the mind. In Ascension is a new high watermark in MacInnes’s already impressive achievement, as well as being a powerful affirmation of everything science fiction can do and say and be.