Reading In Ascension by Martin MacInnes for the Times, 4 February 2023
In the course of Martin MacInnes’s long, dizzying, frustrating third novel, marine biologist Leigh-Ann Hasenboch sets sail to explore a vast chasm in the ocean floor, blasts off into space to pursue an errant space probe, and finally falls apart like a salmon, bleeding out of the real world altogether.
Or does she? Few writers can make the real world appear so elusive. Leigh, we’re told, grew up in Rotterdam, an environment as engineered and as managed as any space capsule. Her father told her not to dig too deep, and stared at her in horror when, playing by the sea, she once drove her plastic spade against the beach’s concrete foundation.
He also beat her, or that’s what she remembers, but there are few certainties in this book, and no guarantees: perhaps the child Leigh was glimpsing premonitions of the beatings she’d receive from the world itself: all those romantic disappointments and professional frustrations! She doesn’t have an easy time of it, and has a knack for taking the difficult path, even as she rises to become a world expert on space habitats and nutrition.
In Ascension is a science fiction vehicle driven with the literary brakes jammed on. Ecological mysteries (that newly discovered chasm beneath the Caribbean reaches deep into the Earth’s mantle) coincide with astronomical mysteries (an alien artefact appears, then disappears), and a somewhat conspiratorial plan is hatched to send an international human crew on a rocket to figure out what (if any) extraterrestrial grand plan is drawing humanity off their dying planet and in among the stars.
That Leigh, after the longest time, joins this project, and earns a place on the crew that will replace the replacement crew if that crew as well as the first crew somehow come to grief before launch, tells you much about MacInnes’s strategy. He has some wild malarky to sell, and he makes it digestible by stretching it out like dough. Science fiction writers, on the other hand, make their malarky acceptable by committing to it — and I can’t help but feel that there’s a moral difference here.
Afficionadoes of MacInnes’s first two books will argue that his unique combination of indirection and ecological speculation amounts to a metaphysical, or even supernatural form all its own, part Robert Macfarlane, part Ray Bradbury.
They’re not wrong. Few writers summon the uncanny as well as MacInnes, whether it be in the depiction of a research vessel, bobbing above the ocean’s limitless depths, or in throw-away lines about astronauts disappearing into clouds of irregular paperwork. And no-one but MacInnes captures so well the way we use social games (modish blather, bureaucracy, rationalism, science) to assemble a manageable reality, away from the wild world’s blooming, buzzing confusion.
MacInnes sometimes realises these preoccupations in splendid macguffins. As Leigh and her two crewmates pursue a 1970s-era Voyager spacecraft far beyond the bounds of the solar system on board their cramped spacecraft Nereus, we begin to intuit that their craft’s innovative propulsion system is not merely not of this Earth; it is, quite literally, unworldly. “The whole of the propulsion system will be sealed from the crew,” we’re told. “It isn’t just advisable. It’s essential. If you try to observe it, it disappears.”
There’s no doubt that MacInnes has fun driving Leigh — an unhappy, not very likeable research graduate — toward her space-and time-busting apotheosis. I just wish that his fun wasn’t taken quite so much at the expense of the reader. “The alien may be a particular way of calibrating energy,” Leigh realises, as she and her crewmates munch though bowls of genetically engineered algae and prepare for First Contact, “not constituted in any one of the properties that delivers the power, but in the act of delivery itself…. Then the alien exists for the length of time the journey endures, the process of realising a journey. Not arriving to meet the alien at the end, but enacting the alien for the duration.”
That’s sly enough, but not nearly as effective as Ray Bradbury’s “The Martians were there — in the canal — reflected in the water.”