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Booker Prize 2023 - In Ascension by Martin MacInnes

Leigh grows up in Rotterdam, at 22 feet below sea level, and develops a fascination with the ocean from an early age. When she swims, she can escape her violent father. And so, it is hardly surprising that she pursues a career as a marine biologist.

During her doctoral studies, she has the opportunity to take part in a research voyage. The ship Endeavour is headed for the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to explore a new vent that has been discovered. It soon becomes apparent that it is quite possibly the deepest point on the planet, far deeper than the Mariana Trench. But exactly how deep is difficult to determine, because the technical equipment is going haywire. Leigh volunteers to dive in a small group and explore to see if they discover anything unusual. They hope to find clues about the origin of life in its depths. Emerging from the water, the divers seem to be sick. They remember nothing but feel a strong desire to return to the sea.

“The cell is basically an ocean capsule. I mean, you could describe us as both people, and as mobile assemblages of ocean.”

Two years later, Leigh, whose research focuses primarily on algae, starts a new job in California. She knows little about the institute she is to work for, apart from the fact that it is a space organisation that has recently discovered a new technology enabling humans to travel much faster and further into space than was previously conceivable.

Leigh leads a team to develop algae that can be used as food for astronauts on missions lasting months or years. She discovers that the Atlantic vent is just one of several related phenomena around the world that suggest a pattern beyond human understanding. When the scientists receive a signal from Voyager I, the probe that was sent into space in the 1970s, everything changes. And so a mission to Voyager is being prepared. And Leigh is asked to join the crew.

“There is only Earth. There was only ever Earth. And we’re leaving it.”

What does it do to a crew of three to be cooped up in a tiny spaceship for months on end? And more importantly, what does it do the humans to watch Earth disappear? Can a mission of unprecedented duration and distance be completed safely? And what might they discover at the edge of the galaxy?

“Was the illness a natural, in-built response to full planetary erasure? Was it latent in the species – in all organisms even? – a biological measure primed to dissuade us from off-planetary travel and the destruction of the planet?”

Martin MacInnes has written a true masterpiece. Epic in scope, this big book draws you in and will have you turn the pages until the very end, at which point you will be desperate for more of MacInnes’s magnificent prose and mind-blowing story telling. I could not put this book down and devoured the 500 pages over the course of one weekend. There are many special things about this novel, but what I loved the most are his descriptions of nature and our relationship with our planet. When the author describes what Leigh experiences in the water, I want to jump right through the pages into the sea. He manages to evoke that attraction she feels in the reader her compulsion becomes yours. It is a novel that deals with climate change, but in a refreshing and tremendously effective way. I was reminded by a phenomenon reported by several astronauts. How after seeing the Earth as a small ball from a great distance, one develops a deep protective instinct for the planet. That you essentially cannot avoid returning to Earth a climate activist. Martin MacInness manages to create a similar effect without him or his readers ever leaving the planet. His passion for this ball we call our home is palpable and contagious without him ever explicitly saying so.

Not usually a Science Fiction reader, I enjoyed the ways in which In Ascension explores scientific ideas and theories, which are often suggested rather than detailed while we are still given enough information to grasp big concepts even with limited previous knowledge. Even concepts like time travel never feel unrealistic. I definitely don’t want to spoil the final revelations – every reader should be granted the joy of experiencing them first-hand – but let’s just say they are moving and astonishing and I am desperate to discuss them, so if you’ve read the book, please let me know!

Reading In Ascension creates a sensation like floating between the depths of the ocean and the endlessness of the universe. It asks questions that range from the microscopic and personal to the universal and leaves you contemplating life and your role in it for days.

“In order to create itself, life already has to exist. Cell theory is circular. Marine chemicals build a membrane that’s a prerequisite for synthesising the chemicals needed to build a membrane. The end instigates the beginning. Cells produce the conditions essential for their own creation. Life is circular, atemporal. Every cell an instance of time travel.”

My journey through this year's Booker dozen couldn't have startet off any better!

Published by Atlantic, 2023

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