In Ascension by Martin MacInnes Review – Cosmic Marvel | Fiction

It is an inalienable convention of fiction that a mystery involves a solution. Imagine a whodunit where the killer is never revealed! Readers would howl in frustration.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Scottish writer Martin MacInnes deceives the reader with the satisfactions of the solution. He is not a frustrating or spy author: on the contrary. Yet although his novels tell stories that cling to mysteries, his distinctiveness as a writer does not rest on the revelations of the plot. In his first novel, 2016’s Infinite Ground, a middle-aged man goes missing during a family meal and a prominent detective is brought in to investigate. But as the investigation progresses, raising more mysteries as it goes, an understanding grows in the reader that something more than a missing persons narrative is afoot. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d argue that the real mystery of Infinite Ground is our very existence and its relationship to the world into which we were born.

You can see from the title that his second novel Gathering Evidence from 2020 is also about solving mysteries. In a near-future dystopia, a social media technology called “Nest” dominates human life, and the world’s last remaining bonobo monkey population is being studied in a jungle sanctuary. Once again the novel offers us related mysteries – the fate of the monkeys, strange mists, unexpected deaths – that are neither overlooked nor neatly linked.

MacInnes’ previous novels have weighed in at around 250 pages: his latest is double that. The editor applies the word “epic,” which is a ballpark, even if something is missing in MacInnes’ way of conjuring an outpouring of human intimacies, simultaneously capturing them in the broadest possible contexts: oceanic vastness and cosmic depths. Science fiction novels have tried to capture the sublimity in the vastness of the universe, but I don’t know of many that connect it to the human level as brilliantly as MacInnes does.

In Ascension begins with two sisters who grew up in the Netherlands. There’s Leigh: tall, smart, a bit chaotic, fascinated by the sea and its biology. Leigh’s father Geert works for a water company, doing dam maintenance and supply engineering to keep the sea at bay. Geert bullies Leigh, who is eager to escape and start a career as a marine biologist. Her sister Helena, a quieter and more petite person, who avoids suffering the violence of her father, ends up becoming a financial lawyer. Leigh travels around the world, while Helen feels more connected to their elderly widowed mother.

Leigh takes a position on a survey vessel called Endeavor which explores the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean. This trip uncovers an anomaly: a huge cavity in the ocean floor, a crater so deep that scientists assume their measuring equipment is malfunctioning. Exploration dives in the area cause strange, inexplicable consequences: there is a strange light; divers get sick; Leigh experiences unexpected happiness. When a crew member becomes lost, the voyage is abandoned, to Leigh’s chagrin: “As we rode off I was fixated on the water, waiting and waiting for the crucial piece to finally come into view.”

Then, a second mystery. Astronomers detect a strange object on its way through the solar system: a kilometer-long ovoid decorated with a giant grid of intersecting spiral lines. It is initially believed to be on a collision course with Earth, but instead the object swings into the Oort cloud and vanishes. A spaceship is rigged to track, explore, and hopefully re-encounter this object, with Leigh training to join the crew. All this goes hand in hand with the mental decline of her mother on the other side of the Atlantic. Leigh has a series of long-distance video calls with her sister, but the secrecy surrounding her mission means she can’t tell her what she’s doing or where she’s going.

If this part of the story adopted the venerable sci-fi model of, say, Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, the mission would intercept the object and rational, sane astronauts would explore and unpack its contents. That’s not how In Ascension goes. Rather, MacInnes drives the novel home with a haunting sequence of episodes that capture its major themes: belonging; reverence; the instabilities that intertwine in reality; and above all, our place in nature. “It is my firm opinion,” MacInnes says in an author’s note, “that climate disaster has been and continues to be made possible primarily by our refusal to accept human integration into the natural world.”

The entire novel is beautifully written: rich in atmosphere, full of brilliantly evoked detail, never sacrificing the ingrained verisimilitude of lived experience to its vast mysteries, yet also capturing a numinous and vatic strangeness that hints at life’s very depths. No one else writes like MacInnes, and this magnificent book is the best of him.

Adam Roberts’ latest novel is The This (Gollancz).

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes is published by Atlantic (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com.

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