Recent Reading: In Ascension by Martin MacInnes

When Paul Lynch won the Booker last year for Prophet Song, a near-future dystopia in which Ireland falls under the sway of a fascist government, there was the predictable hoopla over whether the book could, or should, be read as science fiction. But it seems to me that the SF community missed a trick several months earlier, when it failed to herald the longlisting of Martin MacInnes's In Ascension for the same award. Not only is In Ascension undeniably science fiction, featuring such core tropes as interstellar space travel, new star drives, and contact with aliens; it also seems very much in conversation with some key genre works which deal with these very topics, most obviously Carl Sagan's Contact and the movie adapted from it. As in that story, the novel is told from the point of view of a young, female scientist who ends up at the center of a global effort to respond to indisputable evidence of the existence of alien intelligence. But whereas Contact used that premise to spark a conversation about the conflict between faith and science, In Ascension is a wider-ranging, more meditative work.

Leigh is a microbiologist searching for the origin of complex life—for the spark that caused bacteria and amoebas to start forming multi-celled organisms. On a research expedition to a newly-discovered undersea thermal vent, Leigh and her colleagues are shocked to learn that its depth exceeds anything ever recorded—by an order of magnitude. When divers, including Leigh, are sent to explore the region, they return experiencing hallucinations and fevers. Years later, Leigh is recruited by a secretive, NASA-adjacent agency to develop resilient algae strains for food supplies on long-distance space voyages—which are now feasible thanks to the development of a new form of spaceship propulsion, whose origins are cloaked in mystery. Eventually Leigh learns that her project is intended to support a manned mission to an object discovered outside the solar system, dubbed Datura, which bears unmistakable signs of having been made rather than naturally-formed, and whose appearance may be connected to both the undersea vent and the star drive. Leigh herself ends up on the mission, and the book's final chapters are concerned with the long, monotonous journey into the unknown, until a shocking twist ties the novel's mysteries together.

Locked into Leigh's point of view for much of its length, the novel becomes a reflection on the type of person who dedicates themselves to the pursuit of probably unanswerable questions, and probably unsurvivable endeavors. Leigh is every inch the scientist: knowledgeable, curious, and deeply excited by the opportunity to expand her understanding of the world. Much of her internal monologue is spent explaining things to us, from the difference between prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms, to the procedures in her lab, to the makeup of the space probe Voyager 1. Some of the novel's most enjoyable scenes see her trading ideas with colleagues and superiors, debating, for example, the theory of panspermia, which suggests that life on Earth was seeded by alien contact (Leigh finds this theory "unimaginative"). At the same time, Leigh is tunnel-visioned to a degree that can make her seem incurious—when the development of the star drive is announced, she is doing field work in the Azores, and responds to her hosts' excitement over the dawn of a new age of space exploration with a shrug, quickly returning to her work. It's only when space exploration becomes relevant to her interests—when she becomes aware of Datura and of how it connects to her work on algae and the origin of life—that her interest suddenly locks on to it. And once it does, it become monomaniacal.

At the same time, the novel repeatedly suggests that Leigh's hyperfocus and her dedication to her work are rooted as much in emotional trauma as in scientific curiosity. When Leigh moves to a California research campus to work on her algae project and cavalierly accepts its directors' draconian restrictions on movement and contact with the outside world, it is in part a passive-aggressive method of revenging herself on her mother, who failed to protect Leigh from her father's abuse. As Leigh's involvement with the project deepens and its demands of isolation increase, she has an excuse to ignore her mother's deteriorating mental state, and leave her care in the hands of her younger sister. 

Leigh's mixed feelings about this choice—she never wavers in it, but keeps returning to chew on it—mean that our understanding of her is in constant tension. Early in the novel she suggests that her experiences of child abuse left her uniquely suited to the work she ended up doing, able to efface herself and acquiesce to the demands of something greater. But when we finally meet Leigh's sister Helena, her perspective is quite different, diagnosing Leigh with self-regarding megalomania, a melodramatic need to exaggerate her own hardships and suffering. When Leigh tells her fellow astronauts that she considers their goal, to unravel the mystery of Datura, to be more important than their own survival, it's hard to know whether this is an expression of her dedication to expanding the bounds of human knowledge, or of deep-seated damage.

That duality, however, characterizes nearly everyone Leigh encounters as she prepares for her journey, from the higher-ups in the project (her supervisor Uria knowingly cuts herself off from her daughter while the latter is pregnant in order to concentrate on the mission, and continues to work at mission control while battling cancer) to her fellow astronauts. As Leigh, in her methodical fashion, enumerates the hardships and indignities of astronaut training, it becomes clear that part of its goal is a form of depersonalization. She has to practice complex tasks in cumbersome spacesuits over and over until she can perform them without really thinking about it. She and her teammates spend long weeks in isolation with one another, becoming inured to each other's naked bodies and bodily fluids, acclimating themselves to a lack of privacy and the loss of very basic human pleasures, such as going to the bathroom unaided or taking a shower. 

Leigh eventually concludes that the type of people who are suited to life as astronauts are fundamentally boring. The sort of person who can withstand monotony and a lack of stimuli, who can respond to a sudden crisis with equanimity, and who will not be bowed under by the magnitude of how far they've come, how dangerous their mission is, and what their goal might mean for human existence. And yet the novel leaves us in no doubt that Leigh and her teammates are aware of these enormities, are worrying away at them in their own stolid ways, trying to make sense of their human smallness in the face of the vastness of space and the arrogance of what they're attempting.

If Leigh and the other astronauts are torn between the impulses of the mundane and the sublime, between surrendering to the magnitude of what they're attempting and keeping themselves at arm's length from it so that they can do their work, the world outside seems determined not to process the significance of it at all. Partly this is normal human preoccupation—once the public realizes that the new star drive will only open up the solar system to fast travel, while galactic exploration will still require generation ships, they lose interest and go back to worrying about things like politics and climate change. But it's also a policy decision by Leigh's superiors, who seem determined to obscure and downplay the details of the mission. From Leigh's limited, incurious perspective, it's unclear whether this is a practical consideration—there are multiple teams preparing for Leigh's mission, and the others are attacked by environmental groups who believe the star drive is disrupting animal migration patterns—or an ideological one, a desperate attempt by the powers that be to stave off the public's realization that the status quo has been irrevocably shattered.

Whatever the reason, this obsession with information security is reflected in one of the novel's key preoccupations, the idea of boundaries and quarantine, and of their violation. Leigh grew up in Rotterdam, a city whose very existence depends on the construction of flood barriers, the maintenance of which was her father's life work. In her own work, too, Leigh stresses the importance of impermeable barriers. When she dives near the undersea vent, she wears a new type of diving suit meant to isolate her from any unknown bacterial matter, and samples gathered from the area are held in isolation for months before they can be studied. In her algae labs, there are fastidious protocols meant to prevent contamination of samples and batches. The astronauts are held in isolation before the launch, and sign releases permitting their employers to keep them in quarantine, potentially indefinitely, upon their return, and absolving them of the obligation to return their remains to their families. The ship itself is a necessary protective membrane—Leigh explains in detail the various layers intended to protect the astronauts from exposure to solar radiation. But here, too, there is also an imposed division from the unknown, a hermetic barrier between the crew module and the star drive, whose effects on humans are still unknown.

In each case, such measures are eventually shown to be insufficient. The ravages of climate change and rising sea levels make Leigh's father's work increasingly chaotic and unpredictable—and ultimately, it is implied, unsustainable. Leigh and the other divers experience unexplained symptoms despite the precautions they've taken. But as the novel draws on, the suggestion is increasingly made that these measures are also counterproductive. The same mysterious symptoms were experienced by the scientists who developed the star drive, who seem to have come up with the idea for it in their dreams. The implication is that alien influence has not only overcome Earth's defenses, but that the exploration of space would have been impossible without it. 

Almost as soon as they set out on their journey, Leigh and her teammates discover how unattainable the ideal of hermetic sterility is. They furiously clean their habitat, and panic when unexpected fluids and substances threaten to infiltrate the ship's systems. But such contamination, they eventually realize, is also inevitable. As Leigh explains early in the novel, the origin of all life comes from the mingling of separate amoebas into more complex cells, and even humans are less a single organism than a colony of different types of a bacteria working together. When an unexplained event renders their ship inoperable, Leigh tries to comfort her dying commander by imagining a future in which their remains become one with the ever-proliferating algae, all barriers between people, and lifeforms, now permeated.

In Ascension doesn't entirely unravel the mystery of Datura, but it does make some tantalizing revelations that tie many of its events together. And what those revelations turn on is the necessity of breaking boundaries, of bursting through the shields established to keep us safe—biologically, but also, as we see in Leigh's careful detachment, emotionally. The novel ends with her literal and metaphorical emergence from the shells that have been placed around her, and though it would be a huge spoiler to elaborate any more on this point, its significance ends up being cosmic, a key SFnal concept impeccably and persuasively executed. Only this way, the novel ultimately argues, can something new emerge.


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