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The Long View | Daisy Hildyard

The Long View | Daisy Hildyard

Astronauts often return from their missions with stories of what is known as the overview effect: an intense, sometimes spiritual feeling of awe or love that overwhelmed them when they looked down on Earth from orbit. The image of Earth seen from space, in which the planet appears as a luminous blue-green object floating in darkness, was important to the modern environmental movement at its beginnings in the 1970s, because it showed how fragile the biosphere is.

Others have interpreted the same view differently. The English poet J.H. Prynne has called the picture of Earth taken from the surface of the moon an “unbelievably gross photograph” and a “piece of sentimental whimsy.” (It was, he said in a 1970 lecture, “in all the soap ads.”) More influentially, the American philosopher Donna Haraway’s 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges”—in which she proposes “embodied objectivity,” an approach to the origins of rational knowledge—has been applied to photographs of the planet. In this interpretation, they are examples of “disembodied vision”: Earth becomes “an illusion, a god trick” when seen “from above, from nowhere,” suggesting humanity has transcended the planet—but we haven’t, yet. (Not even the tech billionaires, who are doing their best.)

In that sense the view of Earth from space may do the opposite of what the early environmentalists hoped, insinuating that we don’t really need the planet after all. Haraway’s thirty-five-year-old idea is still discussed because it addresses the workings of power—how certain positions assume and gain authority. Space has long been associated with dominance, in part because it is thought of as empty and neutral, a nowhere.

You could say that a novel is the opposite of a view from nowhere—good or bad, realistic or fantastical, it is always set in time, place, and body. When Leigh, the protagonist of Martin MacInnes’s science fiction novel In Ascension, looks down from her spaceship, Nereus, she doesn’t seem to have any sense of overview. Instead, she begins a halting conversation with ground control about their impressions of life back on Earth. She asks her colleagues down in Florida to talk about “the sound of raindrops bouncing off the roof, the first folds of color in the sky, steam rising from the forest verges as the storm begins to fade.” Leigh is nostalgic, a trait she despises in herself.

Perhaps her nostalgia stems from the fact that she didn’t intend to become an astronaut. Leigh was a marine biologist specializing in algae when she moved to California to lead a program developing food for future missions to space. She happens to be qualified for mission training: tall, experienced in extreme deep-sea diving, hardworking, emotionally unattached. Her voyage, when it comes, is bigger than anything anybody has ever undertaken before. Leigh’s world is a speculative near future of climate catastrophe, in which a major leap in jet propulsion has suddenly made long-distance space travel possible. The new engines are powered by a concealed mechanism that the inventors themselves don’t understand—unsettlingly, the technology came to them in dreams.

Leigh is intelligent, cool, aloof. She is a researcher before she is a partner, daughter, or friend. Her shying away from human relationships is presented as a consequence of her early life growing up in Rotterdam with her violent father, Geert, an aspiring architect who failed his entrance exams and “never got over this,” and her mother, Fenna, a mathematician who retreated into her work. Geert’s aggression was directed only at Leigh—not at Fenna or at Leigh’s younger sister, Helena—and Leigh never fully understands why. As her calm, collected voice narrates the events of her life, she returns several times to question what was driving or haunting Geert and why Fenna let the violence continue. The family never discussed “the threat”—it was “implicit, clear in the bruises on my arms, neck and face. I had been thrown repeatedly against a wall. The worse the beatings got, the more withdrawn Fenna became.”

At the age of ten, Leigh finds a sense of release when she is permitted to swim in the local river, the Nieuwe Maas, alone. One afternoon in early autumn she arrives there in a state of desperation: “I felt particularly hopeless. I saw no realistic escape from the situation with Geert and I lived in constant terror of him.” She walks into the chill water. “As I reached the point where my shoulders became submerged, my chest started to convulse and I swallowed mouthfuls of bitter water, and very faintly, as if from a great distance, I sensed that I was about to give way.”

At this point the story that Leigh is telling swerves, and we go somewhere entirely different. The moment of despair that she seems to be walking into opens, with an almost literal flourish, onto a whole other world. As Leigh pushes herself further underwater, her eyes open, and she finds that she can “suddenly see everything very clearly. The larger rocks on the river-bed studded with worms, sponges, limpets and lichen. Beyond them the tufts of floating green and purple riverweed.” She experiences a moment of complete silence:

I realised, suddenly, with appreciation, that absolutely everything around me was alive.

There was no gap separating my body from the living world. I was pressed against a teeming immensity, every cubic millimetre of water densely filled with living stuff.

She senses the “fraternity” of millions of invisible microscopic organisms all around her:

I didn’t look through the water towards life, I looked directly into water-life, a vast patchwork supporting my body, streaming into my nostrils, my ears, the small breaks and crevices in my skin, swirling through my hair and entering the same eyes that observed it.

The novel doesn’t belabor the implied connection between this epiphany and the calling to marine biology that will ultimately allow Leigh to escape from Geert. There is something here that lingers, though—throughout, MacInnes contrasts Leigh’s parched human relationships with her thriving and magnetic attraction to the universe and its systems and ecosystems.

From the beginning of her career, Leigh is carried away from other people by her work: though she goes to university just a few miles away, she doesn’t see her parents or sister often. A few years later, traveling alone on a graduate research project to collect phytoplankton in the Azores, she feels herself to be “in close contact, as I saw it, with the stuff of the world.” She resolves that this work will be “the objective and the priority of my life, more so than family, than relationships, than any other form of knowledge or attainment at all.” Soon after the Azores she is offered a position on the ship Endeavour, sailing into the mid-Atlantic to gather information on a deep-sea trench that seems to have pulled open. The next time we see her she has already landed her post at ICORS, the space agency.

Weird things are happening everywhere Leigh goes. When she works on strains of algae at the space agency in California, she is surprised to discover that the laboratory technicians have been given orders to splice a new gene into her samples. She also hears about carved rocks in the sky, a blip in the Voyager spacecraft records, and erratic readings from gigantic satellites in the desert. Her superiors clear her to receive pieces of classified information, which she puzzles together with a gradually rising apprehension that something big is happening to her world. But her fascination with aquatic biology changes little from that moment in the Nieuwe Maas. One of the central subjects of her research—and one of the central figures in the plot—is one of the least fantastical. She works with an ordinary, widespread, apparently humble life-form, archaea (“the ancients” in Latin), “small, structurally simple” micro-organisms that are ancestors to all complex forms of life, seemingly antedating even bacteria, and exist today in ice sheets, deep-sea vents, and the human stomach.

In Ascension is the Scottish writer Martin MacInnes’s third novel, and it is a substantial work, carefully paced and plotted. Each of its five sections—four narrated by Leigh and one by Helena, plus an epilogue—covers an expedition, moving the action from Rotterdam to Ascension Island (via two mid-Atlantic voyages), Jakarta, California, French Guiana, and finally into space. There is an elegant symmetry to the novel, which balances Leigh’s stratospheric career against the collapse of her personal relationships: she fails to sustain a connection with Helena and an almost nonexistent romantic attachment. Later, Fenna, living alone in Holland, starts behaving strangely. Leigh becomes aware of an increasing responsibility toward her aging mother and distances herself. This distancing, like the faltering of Leigh’s love life, slowly reveals itself through her few reticent allusions to the people she cares about, and nearer the end of the novel we see it again in Helena’s differing perceptions of those relationships.

There is a thought-provoking turn at the end of In Ascension that draws the ordinary and extraordinary parts of Leigh’s life together. The novel as a whole has a Möbius strip construction; a mind-bending image of circular experience is stitched into everything. This is common to MacInnes’s books, each of which features a formal arrangement around a central image or concept. His first novel, the surreal thriller Infinite Ground (2017), is set in an unnamed Latin American country after the disappearance of a young man from a family meal in a restaurant. Concerned with images of absence, it follows a manhunt for a savage murderer who may not actually exist, via a trail of fictional microbes.

MacInnes’s second novel, Gathering Evidence (2020), is a dystopia set in Westenra, a fictional wildlife park in the Congo Basin. Shel, a biologist, is sent into Westenra to find out what’s happening to the small residual population of bonobo monkeys that have survived widespread extinction events and are endangered by some mysterious threat. Back at home, Shel’s partner, John, is recovering from a violent attack. The novel is also, elegantly and uneasily, the story of “the nest,” a powerful, ultimately malevolent form of AI that records and silently harvests the traces of movement or interaction that each life imprints on its surroundings.

In Ascension opens itself to a larger readership than its predecessors, and it was long-listed for the Booker Prize. As a work of science fiction, this in itself would have made it an exception until recently. Science fiction has always had a wide readership, of course, but the past decade has seen a new audience emerge as prejudices about genre fiction lift. Yet it’s rarely acknowledged that genre fiction has its own forms of technical sophistication that a reader of literary fiction won’t necessarily grasp. (Perhaps this is a hangover of the old condescension.) Readers may, for example, need an eye for the profusion of new terms and concepts that often come with worldbuilding, and an ear for the allusive constructions beloved of science fiction and fantasy, or they’ll lose their way (and lose interest).

MacInnes’s first two novels are more invested in body horror and surreal detours than In Ascension, which is concerned more directly with character—how Leigh’s life progresses from childhood and through her career. The new novel alludes to some of the greats of its genre, from Arthur C. Clarke to Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative settings and technologies are worked out and communicated with sufficient clarity to be grasped by even the entry-level science fiction reader (this one, anyway). But it’s also an assured literary novel in the nineteenth-century mode—fat and heavy, concerned with character and society, and delivered in Leigh’s quietly conversational voice.

MacInnes was born in 1983 and belongs to a generation of novelists celebrated for being clever and funny—for autofiction and sharp satire of hyperliterate individuals in Brooklyn, London, or Berlin. Compared with these urbane approaches, MacInnes’s writing seems to come from another planet. It’s more violent, and more fantastical, but the distinction is more immediately tonal. His novels have an unusual sobriety, a serious atmosphere, and a searching quality. The prose is clean and spare but rarely designed to impress; there’s wisdom rather than cleverness in the storytelling.

Where his peers can do brilliant parodies of how humans behave on social media, MacInnes invents his own species of AI. Where they refer to psychoanalysis, thinking about how parents influence their children, MacInnes refers to biology to describe the full evolutionary inheritance of the human and human society, from the origins of life to the emergence of the cyborg. (Each of his novels has a passage or plotline that runs back to the origins of the human.) In Ascension has its scenes of ordinary life. Sisters meet on Zoom to argue about their mother’s care. A tense work dinner relaxes with “the first hit of the chardonnay.” But the story also frequently pulls back for a wider view of a person on a planet, in space, in deep time. MacInnes treats this view as continuous with the experience of a person eating her dinner or checking her phone—the big room all this happens inside.

If MacInnes’s writing goes against certain trends, that’s not to say he’s alone out there. The publisher and early readers of In Ascension compared it to Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018), Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014), and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (1998). These are intriguingly diverse: Powers’s is a heavyweight state-of-the-nation novel; VanderMeer’s is the slim first volume in a violent dystopian sci-fi trilogy; Chiang’s shorter work falls somewhere between Borges’s fiction and the Alien movies. But they are all part of an explosion in cross-genre ecological literature that builds on the work of an older generation of radical women: Haraway’s writing on cyborgs and hybrids; sci-fi and fantasy fiction by Le Guin and Octavia Butler; the biologist Lynn Margulis’s work on the significance of symbiosis and interconnection in evolution. (A minor character in In Ascension is named Ursula, and Leigh gives a talk at a lecture hall named after Margulis.) The different fictions of Powers and Chiang, VanderMeer and MacInnes, all present lives as profoundly interdependent in ways that are explicitly ecosystemic or otherwise connected with nonhuman ways of being. Such environmental stories seem to lend themselves to speculative or fantastical treatments—The Overstory is the only realist work—and they are all imaginatively far out, with psychedelic concepts, unusual narrative approaches to time, and sudden changes of scale.

When In Ascension was first released in the UK last year, a friend drew my attention to another similarity between these stories: their protagonists are all exceptional female scientists, all women deeply involved with academic research but cut off from human relationships. Louise, the heroine of Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” is a linguist and has a composed presence much like Leigh’s. She narrates events in the second person to her dead daughter, delivering a compressed, factual account of her daughter’s fatal accident and the disintegration of her marriage, interspersed with appreciations of logograms, calculus, and Fermat’s theorem.

The unnamed biologist who narrates Annihilation is, like Leigh, enthralled by the ecosystems of her professional specialty—rock pools, a patch of urban scrub, an abandoned swimming pool—but she absents herself from human relationships. Of her parents: “Sometimes it felt as if I had been placed with a family rather than born into one.” On friendship: “I didn’t cultivate friends.” Patricia Westerford, a tree biologist, is the main character of one of the braided narratives in The Overstory. As a child, hearing aids and speech difficulties curtail her interactions with other people. Instead of listening to human conversation, she pays attention to, and cares about, trees. As a teenager she declines a potential prom date because of “a white-oak stake through the heart.”

A cynical reader might see in Leigh and her peers the figure of a woman who has been tidied up by someone named Martin, Richard, Jeff, or Ted. If tradition placed a white man in the role of astronaut, scientist, thinker, or simply hero, this newer writing puts a woman in his place—but her streamlined character dictates a story that doesn’t mention ordinary feminine experiences. (Sexism, friendships, and periods, for example, are left out of all these speculative fictions.) This contrasts with the gendered, race-aware science fiction of Butler or Le Guin, both of whom engaged with what Le Guin called “privilege and power and domination,” even in their most fantastical stories of parallel universes.

Leigh’s account of herself—“I immersed myself in study, and excelled”—also feels far from the real-world career of a biologist like Margulis, who talked about how her research into evolution was rejected on political grounds, who expressed glee in her public intellectual disagreements with male peers, and who can be seen on video breaking into her own version of the disco hit “Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now” as part of a lecture on prokaryotic evolution. I remember my own doctoral supervisor, a historian of science, telling me about traveling to Holland to collect an award for one of her books. She felt a pang of terror when she entered the reception—an event held in her honor—and the panel, the governing body, and the other nominees turned unsmiling faces to scrutinize her. She was the only person in the room who didn’t have a white beard. My supervisor recounted this as a funny story (and humblebrag), but I think it was also a shrewd kind of training—professional preparation for a female graduate student in that field at that time. Leigh never walks into a room like this, and aside from one characteristically minimal reference to a female mentor being “patronised, or worse,” by male colleagues, she doesn’t seem to be aware that such rooms even exist.

That’s okay. Characters are people, not equations, and they can’t be incorrect. It’s the fact that these elite, isolated women are central to several different stories that suggests a new stock character, and somebody to think about. Readers will have mixed feelings about them, but among those feelings there will be a sense of relief. These women don’t experience misogyny because they are just too busy discovering new species (the biologist), cracking alien languages (Louise), making scientific breakthroughs (Patricia), or flying into space (Leigh).

This isn’t just a matter of misogyny, though, or even of gender more widely, but a question about identity and how it can drive a story. In Ascension, “Story of Your Life,” and Annihilation also leave out race and class. (Identity is absented from Annihilation to the extent that the characters don’t have names.) There is undoubtedly something unnerving about the way these speculative settings are so quiet on human difference, as though something were being obscured, an artificial nowhere cultivated. What sort of power is at work in the neutralized, emptied spaces that these stories seem to be creating?

There’s a telling exception in The Overstory. Patricia Westerford, unlike the other characters, encounters obstacles. Like Margulis, she is derided by male colleagues for her groundbreaking claims about ecological networks. Patricia loses her job and writes a hugely successful general-interest book about trees. She becomes an eccentric, living in the woods in a happy, cranky marriage to a man who has his own house but visits her at lunchtime with spinach lasagna or rainbow trout.

Patricia’s narrative has a messiness that is absent from Leigh’s finely calibrated ascent. Perhaps this difference has something to do with genre. In The Overstory, a realist novel, Patricia is buffeted and knocked around, as all real lives are, by society and circumstances beyond her control. But In Ascension, Annihilation, and “Story of Your Life” are each set in their own speculative universe. Looking for realism there misses the point. Leigh seems to absorb this soon after she takes her first job at the space center. She applies herself to her work and spends time at the gym: “Sometimes I didn’t recognise myself.” It’s not only the new muscles but something deeper, a “blank expression” she has acquired. “This isn’t you, I said, but a character entering another kind of fiction.”

What this blanked character, this other kind of fiction, brings to our stories is room to look at different things. There is a fictional scale effect at work in speculative fiction, like an overview effect. An astronaut in orbit can look at the planet, but she can’t see an individual person or a fish, a monkey, an iceberg, a tree down there. Speculative stories often do something comparable, stepping outside the mess and complexity of personal relations to look at wider surroundings. A feeling of and for the world can be induced precisely because it’s estranged from reality, as the astronaut knows.

This could be why speculative environmental fiction and environmental fiction about space (I thought of Samantha Harvey’s “space pastoral” novel Orbital) are flourishing, along with a cohesive new genre of climate fiction, or “cli-fi.” Leigh has a story to tell about this planet’s algae and deep-sea vents, the human microbiome and the sixteen layers of steel and water that make up Nereus’s walls. VanderMeer’s biologist describes an exchange between the personal and the environmental: “Sustenance for me was tied to ecosystem and habitat, orgasm the sudden realization of the interconnectivity of things.”

This “sudden realization” of interconnectivity could be a description of Leigh’s revelation on the riverbed. In Ascension is full of the interconnected planet. Amoeba under a microscope; constellations over the Atlantic; a city mystified by morning smog; a tide of turtles; the “sap-full” smell of an oak-paneled corridor; bright green lakes in the craters of dormant volcanoes. All this is seen, heard, smelled, and felt by Leigh and Helena. The novel is sci-fi at heart, but the genre has room for the luminous, caring descriptions of life in detail that I associate more readily with Proust or Karl Ove Knausgård.

As an adult, Leigh stays at Fenna’s flat while between work contracts. One night she wakes up in the early hours to hear “the noise of plates slipping in the sink.” She creeps out of her room and stands in the dark hallway, peering into the “edge of light [that] filtered out from the kitchen.” It’s 3:38 AM, and Fenna is doing the washing-up. But Leigh had washed up and put the dishes away after dinner. Inexplicably, Fenna is repeating the operation: “The same two glasses and plates. The same colander and lemon squeezer.”

The scene is a turning point in our understanding of Fenna, and it’s an emblem of the circular or looped experience of time that runs through In Ascension. There’s also a quality of atmosphere that is harder to pin down—the suspense as Leigh stands secretly in the dark hallway, close to and separate from Fenna in her nightgown at the sink. It’s an eerie moment, disconcerting and also sleepily familiar.

The story draws this intensified attention out, with quiet extravagance, into space. As the novel expands, it forms a constellation of colanders and meteors. We see a close-up view of Jupiter’s “soft milky” surface and Fenna at the sink in her nightgown, “the material hanging from her shoulder blades, a distant, bewildered expression on her face.” In Ascension has it both ways, as fiction can: we’re there in Nereus with Leigh looking down on Earth from space while we also, at the same time, hear the rain on the roof.

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