It is an inalienable convention of fiction that a mystery entails a solution. Imagine a whodunnit in which the murderer is never revealed! Readers would howl in frustration.
It would be wrong to suggest that Scottish writer Martin MacInnes cheats the reader of the satisfactions of solution. He is not a frustrating or peekaboo author: quite the reverse. And yet, although his novels tell stories that hang on mysteries, his distinctiveness as a writer does not depend on plot reveals. In his first novel, 2016’s Infinite Ground, a middle-aged man disappears during a family meal, and an eminent detective is brought in to investigate. But as the investigation proceeds, throwing up other mysteries as it goes, the understanding grows in the reader that something more than a missing persons narrative is under way. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d say the real mystery of Infinite Ground is our very existence, and its relationship with the world into which we are born.
From its title you can see that his second novel, 2020’s Gathering Evidence, is also about mystery-solving. In a near-future dystopia a social media tech called “Nest” dominates human life, and the world’s last remaining population of bonobo apes are being studied in a jungle sanctuary. Again the novel gives us connected mysteries – the fate of the apes, strange mists, unexpected deaths – which are neither neglected nor tied up neatly.
MacInnes’ previous novels have weighed in at around the 250-page mark: his latest is double that. The publisher applies the word “epic”, which is ballpark, although it misses something of the way MacInnes evokes a spread of human intimacies, simultaneously capturing them in the largest possible contexts: oceanic vastnesses and cosmic backdrops. Science fiction novels have sought to capture the sublimity in the sheer scale of the universe, but I don’t know many that relate that to the human level quite so brilliantly as MacInnes does.
In Ascension starts with two sisters growing up in the Netherlands. There’s Leigh: tall, clever, slightly chaotic, fascinated by the sea and its biology. Leigh’s father Geert works for a water board, maintaining the dykes and engineering the supply to keep the sea at bay. Geert mistreats Leigh, who can’t wait to get away and start a career as a marine biologist. Her sister, Helena – a quieter, smaller person, who avoids being on the receiving end of their father’s violence – ends up as a financial lawyer. Leigh travels all around the world, while Helen feels more closely bound to their aging, widowed mother.
Leigh takes a position on a survey ship called the Endeavor exploring the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean. This voyage uncovers an anomaly: a huge cavity in the mid-ocean floor, a crater so deep that the scientists assume their measuring equipment must be malfunctioning. Exploratory dives in the area result in strange, inexplicable consequences: there’s an odd light; divers fall ill; Leigh experiences unexpected bliss. When a crew member is lost, the voyage is abandoned, to Leigh’s disappointment: “As we pulled away I was fixated on the water, waiting and waiting for the crucial piece to finally come into view.”
Then, a second mystery. Astronomers detect a strange object on a path through the solar system: a kilometers-long ovoid decorated with a gigantic grid of intersecting spiral lines. Initially it is believed to be on a collision course with Earth, but instead the object swings out into the Oort cloud and vanishes. A spaceship is fitted out to follow, explore and hopefully re-encounter this object, with Leigh training to join the crew. All this is set alongside the mental decline of her mother, on the other side of the Atlantic. Leigh has a series of long-distance video calls with her sister, but the secrecy in which the mission is shrouded means she can’t tell her what she’s doing or where she’s going.
If this portion of the story adopted the venerable SF model of, say, Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, the mission would intercept the object and level-headed, rational astronauts would explore and unpack its contents. That’s not how In Ascension goes. Rather, MacInnes brings the novel home with a haunting sequence of episodes that capture its main themes: belonging; reverence the instabilities that are woven into reality; and above all, our place in nature. “It’s my strong opinion,” MacInnes says in an author’s note, “that climate disaster has been and continues to be enabled primarily through our refusal to accept human integration in the natural world.”
The whole novel is beautifully written: richly atmospheric, full of brilliantly evoked detail, never sacrificing the grounded verisimilitude of lived experience to its vast mysteries, but also capturing a numinous, vatic strangeness that hints at genuine profundities about life. Nobody else writes like MacInnes, and this magnificent book is his best yet.
Adam Roberts’ latest novel is The This (Gollancz).
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes is published by Atlantic (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com.