Close to the opening of this extraordinary novel, the narrator, Leigh, peruses the bookshelves in her mother's office. Femi is a theoretical mathematician and Leigh notes volumes with intimidating titles like Philosophy of Cusp Forms and Ultraparallel Theorem, as well as one bearing only an infinity symbol, a lemniscate, on its spine. It is a sign. That symbol with its interlocking ovoids recurs in many different forms throughout this ingeniously constructed book: in a mysterious message that may be from an extraterrestrial intelligence, in the shape of the Nereus, the spaceship that eventually carries Leigh to the edge of the solar system. Indeed, In Ascension is itself structured like an infinity symbol, a Moebius whose ending returns us to the beginning.
Yet, while taking us on a vast and awe-inspiring journey to the stars, In Ascension is grounded in life on Earth. It is a story about connectedness, about nature and human nature; ecologies, both macro and micro. The linking motif running through the book is water: water as a carrier of life, water as connector, water as protector (the Nereus, named after a Greek sea god, contains an ocean in its hull). MacInnes beautifully evokes a formative moment, when Leigh, swimming near her home in Rotterdam as an escape from her unhappy childhood, has an insight into the interconnectedness of all lifeforms and environments - 'there was no gap separating my body from the living world' - and this notion is a sort of foundation for all that follows.
Leigh becomes a marine biologist specialising in algae.In the near future, against a backdrop of climate collapse, she joins a scientific expedition to investigate a newly-discovered marine vent, which initial readings suggest may be deeper than the Mariana Trench.She and her colleagues speculate about the role thermal vents may have played in the genesis of early lifeforms, even the origin of life itself. As their ship nears the site, anomalous phenomena begin to occur. The leader of the expedition suggests they may have found 'a location of singular importance in the history of life on the planet...a cradle, a garden...' When the expedition attempts to measure the depth of t the trench their initial readings suggest it is 36kms deep, three times that of the Mariana Trench. Subsequent readings suggest it is many, many times deeper than that. It is the series of jaw- dropping moments in a book which challenges our sense of the possible.
Soon after, the focus turns outwards, towards space. A mysterious object, decorated with runes a and symbols is detected passing through the outer solar system. A message is received from the Voyager probe, now billions of miles distant and long presumed inactive. A new propulsion system is developed which will allow a spaceship to travel at hitherto unfeasible speeds.
Leigh develops new algal strains as a source of food ( and psychological comfort, the algae's greenness a potential salve against the sense of loss experienced as our blue-green planet retreats into the distance) for a long extra-planetary journey. She trains as a member of the support crew for the mission, but it is no surprise when she and her colleagues are bumped up to become the primary crew. As the Nereus passes beyond the heliopause (the limit of the sun's influence) things begin to blur, as if the narrative logic of space and time is being stretched and distorted by the vastness of the journey.
There's more, of course, but I've already given so much away. What I will say is that MacInnnes handles his material - and his research, which must have been extensive- deftly. And for all the big ideas, the sheer scale of the story, the narrative is compelling. I was gripped, hurtling headlong towards an astonishing conclusion. However, a word of caution: readers who like their stories neatly tied up may well be frustrated. Readers who enjoy something more open, more speculative, will find In Ascension completely satisfying.
It's a big story, beautifully told, austere and grand, filled with ideas. It is mind-boggling, mind-expanding, enriching. Rightly longlisted for the Booker Prize, I would be amazed if it didn't make the shortlist. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more ambitious novel being published this year. It gives us the story of a life and a story of life itself.