My advance copy of Martin MacInnes’s new novel states – alongside a photograph of dog-eared handwritten pages leaning on a rocky outcrop in the sun, stacked so roughly they resemble the craggy peaks of a mountain range – that In Ascension was written “by hand on the coast of east Scotland”.
This seems less an affectation than a direct link between the creation of the book and its purpose: to reinforce, or even reintroduce, the importance of a connection between people and our planet, in the age of climate crisis.
After all, MacInnes is nothing if not ambitious. His previous novels, Infinite Ground (2016) and Gathering Evidence (2020) took the frames of crime fiction and eco-dystopia and toyed with them, dismantled and reassembled them into strange new forms. His work is so unlike any other writer of literary fiction, and his outcomes so interesting, that he must be a shoo-in for Granta’s best young British novelists list this spring.
In Ascension extends his range and should add to his reputation. This time he takes the tropes of science fiction and, in five leisurely parts, turns them inward. But first downward, as we meet Dr Leigh Hasenboch, who trained as a marine microbiologist in Rotterdam, escaping the memory of her late father, Geert, and his torrential volatility. If there is violence in her past, there is hope in her future: Leigh is now working on an expedition ship off the Caribbean coast of South America, exploring a vent that has appeared in the Earth’s crust below the sea, which appears, impossibly, to be three times deeper than the Mariana Trench.
The depth readings, which the crew assume to be somehow corrupted, throw into doubt anything they might find – such as new life – down there. If there is “something unprecedented” in the vent, Leigh tells a colleague, “there’s no guarantee we’d acknowledge it. Even if it moves right past us.” After all, we only see what we’re looking for.
Meanwhile, others are looking outward: scientists make a breakthrough in propulsion technology, dramatically accelerating space exploration. Now a crewed mission could reach the Oort Cloud at the fringes of the solar system in 10 months; even interstellar travel is possible, using multigenerational crews.
The long, slow process to get from the deepest part of the planet to the farthest reaches of space is described in this long, slow-moving book. The story blooms so subtly, like a flower unfurling, that the reader hardly notices the dramatic developments until they suddenly are upon us: a blackout, mysterious ailments, an anomaly resembling the sentinel in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
These occurrences are all in the service of making us understand that we are not on the Earth, we are of it. “Life is already alien, is already rich and strange,” says Leigh. “We don’t need to say it arrived seeded on a meteor to make it more so.”
The mystery of where Leigh will end up is so enticing that it’s a shame when the last substantive section of the book returns us to Earth and family life, with a thud of crammed backstory and a few future shocks. But an uncertain finish doesn’t damage what went before. Indeed, it’s an apt approach for a book that reminds us to value above all the journey we are on, and the world we live in.
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes is published by Atlantic Books (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply