James Smythe's 2013 novel The Explorer described an ill-fated mission to send a manned spacecraft farther from Earth than anyone had ever gone before. His latest novel, The Echo, is a sequel to The Explorer, book two of a planned four-book series called The Anomaly Quartet. Twenty-three years after the events of the first novel, humanity is again attempting manned space travel, this time in response to the existential threat posed by an approaching patch of black space called the anomaly. What is it, and what might happen if it eventually reaches Earth? To answer these questions, a massive international effort has prepared and launched a new spacecraft. The mission is directed by twin brothers who have studied the anomaly for their entire adult lives. One of these brothers, the story's narrator, Dr. Mira Hyvönen, will actually travel on the ship along with a half dozen other crew and see the anomaly firsthand.
The premise might suggest this series is about the investigation of a big dumb object, a story in the tradition of works like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973) or Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970), but The Echo and The Anomaly Quartet as a whole are telling a very different sort of story. First and foremost, they're not very interested in the physics of space travel or the investigation of an object in space. When The Explorer wasn't being coy and evasive about the details of its expedition, it was usually getting those details jarringly wrong in ways that could only partly be explained by its narrator's lack of a scientific background. The Echo is even more vague, almost completely omitting technical details despite having a scientist as its narrator. Does the anomaly have mass? Where is it within the solar system? How quickly is it moving towards Earth? These basic questions are not answered in the narrative, and indeed are not even asked. We are simply told the anomaly is entirely opaque, that its borders can be roughly mapped by sending "pings" and seeing where they "disappear" (that's the anomaly, because apparently pings can still be seen in normal space), and that's about it. This is not to declare the novel invalid because it wasn't written in the style of Greg Egan, but it's important to emphasize that readers who prefer hard science fiction, or even those who expect a modicum of science in their science fiction, are going to find these books a frustrating experience.
Another crucial way the The Echo differs from the typical pattern is that the object being investigated does not reflect its creators and their intentions. The anomaly's chief feature is its inscrutability, and its defining behavior is that it rewinds time. The Echo devotes a small amount of time to Mira and his crewmates investigating the interface between the anomaly and normal space, but nothing is learned that permits any speculation about the anomaly's history or its purpose. The anomaly does not reflect its origins but rather its investigators, and The Echo's real project is using this mirror to help paint a detailed portrait of its narrator's psychology. Mira is intelligent but unable to relate well to other people, and his initial confidence in the thoroughness of the expedition's preparations almost immediately gives way to anxiety over whether the mission will succeed and whether his role will be appreciated. His twin brother Tomas is his only confidant and friend, the one person he understands and who understands him. Yet Tomas is also a rival, and Mira often feels unfairly overshadowed by his brother, who is slightly better socially adapted and who therefore has served as the front man for their efforts. Mira is a basket case from the beginning, but as the novel progresses and more and more things go wrong with the mission, he slowly crumbles under ever-increasing pressure.
Readers of The Explorer will recognize the shape of the story. Both novels involve a space mission that goes terribly wrong, both are focused on a thorough examination of a troubled first-person narrator's mind as he buckles under the weight of his circumstances, and both use the time-twisting nature of the anomaly (albeit in different ways) to allow their narrator to develop a detached perspective on his own life and the lives of his crewmates. These similarities invite a close comparison that unfortunately is not very flattering to The Echo. The Explorer's narrator, Cormac, is a much more relatable figure than Mira, and he undergoes a much greater change over the course of his book. Also, while the vague and even incorrect scientific details of The Explorer can perhaps be attributed to Cormac's lack of knowledge, The Echo has no such excuse. We are told Mira and his brother are geniuses who did years of research on the anomaly, but they also designed nearly every part of the spaceship after winning support for their mission. The Echo is very effective in its depiction of Mira's anxieties and trust issues, but it fails to make him believable as either a scientist or an engineer. Mira is supposed to be physically present on the spacecraft so he can get a close look at the anomaly, but that's all he does: look at it.
I pull the camera to the edges of the anomaly, where it looks like the aurora borealis, folds and lines of colour along the rim. I trace the line of the thing as best I can: I overlay the pings, and I stare at it. "What are you?" I ask it. I watch it for hours more. When I start to falter, I take another stim. The next thing I know, I've been looking at it all night. (p. 103)
Staring at a screen and waiting for an epiphany is not science, it's what science looks like on television. We could try to accept this useless fixation on the appearance of the anomaly as a sign of a dysfunctional obsession, but the narrative implies that it's only the duration of Mira's observation that's a problem, and the other characters in the story don't seem to expect him to do anything else, nor do they do anything more helpful themselves.
Those other characters are another area where The Explorer surpasses its sequel. When we first meet the crew in both novels, they are painted in very broad strokes, but as the first book progressed, both the readers and Cormac himself learned more and more about his fellow crew, complicating initially simple characterizations with new perspectives. This doesn't really happen in The Echo. The other characters, like Mira, break down under the stresses of danger and failure, but we never learn anything about them that elevates them beyond stereotypes: the tough Eastern European, the impulsive American, the spiritual Asian, and so on.
Read on its own, then, The Echo is a weaker book than The Explorer, but considering it as part of a series places it in a better light. The many ways in which it, ahem, echoes its predecessor allow interesting comparisons to be drawn. In The Explorer, for example, much is made of inspiring humanity to become explorers again, and the mission is undertaken with the idea that as long as that inspiration happens everything else will work out. By contrast, Mira and his brother are determined to succeed through rational analysis, planning for every contingency.
We planned the entirety of the trip meticulously. No room for error, and no error likely. Tomas framed the plan, seventeen printed A4 sheets of times and dates, and mounted it on the wall of our lab. I asked him why he framed it, and he said, It's not going to change, so I might as well. (p. 21)
Mira frequently pauses in his narration to contrast his mission with that of The Explorer, which he regards as amateurish and ill-conceived. His belief in the efficacy of rationality is central to his own identity, and when the mission goes wrong despite all their planning, he is left to wonder how this could have happened. Here the vagueness of the narrative is an asset, for the reader can't diagnose the problems of the mission in technical terms. With such scanty information, the blame can't be placed on a faulty O-ring or a piece of software failing to convert units. Instead, humanity's entire project of planning for the future and bringing order out of chaos seems in doubt.
Given that this is the second of a planned four-book series, it shouldn't be a spoiler to say that few if any answers are provided for the narrative's fundamental questions. By the end of the novel you still won't know what the anomaly is or why it's heading toward Earth. It's reasonable to doubt that even after four books any answers will come, or if they do, that they'll be satisfying, since even the greatest science fiction authors have found it far easier to pose mysteries than to resolve them. But even if The Echo isn't as successful as its predecessor, it develops the themes of the series in a useful way. It won't convert those who were offended by The Explorer's lack of rigor, but it's worth reading for anyone who enjoyed the first book.
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