In Ascension author Martin Macinnes: ‘Science fiction can be many different things’

by ARKANSAS DIGITAL NEWS

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Martin MacInnes, author of In Ascension

Gary Doak

Martin MacInnes is the author of the latest read for the New Scientist Book Club: In Ascension, the story of a marine biologist, Leigh, from her childhood to her adventures among the stars. He sat down with our culture editor Alison Flood to answer some of her questions about his novel. But be warned – as this is a book club discussion, there will be some spoilers about the plot ahead, so do read the novel first before diving into this interview.

Alison Flood: Martin, welcome to the New Scientist Book Club! How would you describe what’s going on in your novel?

Martin MacInnes: I’ll give a slight caveat in that, as a former bookseller, I’m quite sceptical of the ability of a quick synopsis to do justice to a book, but I’ll do my best. It’s about the story of one life and of life itself, from a young Dutch marine biologist to 4 billion years of evolution, from difficult childhoods and complex family dynamics to voyages to the seabed and far beneath, and to the edge of the solar system. It’s a novel of connections, and loneliness.

Lots going on there then! So, we are the New Scientist Book Club, and so far the books that we’ve read have all been science fiction. Are you happy to describe this as a sci-fi novel?

Yes, I am. I know that’s a difficult question for some people and maybe some readers would take issue with its science fiction status. But I love reading science fiction and I don’t have any problems saying this is science fiction. It has a spaceship in it! But just because it’s science fiction, it doesn’t limit it in any way. Science fiction can be many different things.

How about a climate change novel?

Maybe, sort of surprisingly, I’m kind of less happy with that, because I’m really against the ghettoising of fiction into climate change fiction, as if that’s something we can section off and say “here are the books that aren’t ignoring ecocide and the devastation of the planet”. Everything being published just now, regardless of what it thinks it’s doing, kind of is climate fiction, because that’s the world we’re living through. It’s less dramatically climate fiction than something like Kim Stanley Robinson‘s The Ministry for the Future, but it is a novel about ecology and about what humans have in common with the natural world. So yeah, in those senses, it kind of is a climate novel, but I kind of resist that.

Yes, I see – so we don’t need to separate it out into its own little enclave. Where did it start from, the idea to tell this story?

There are two ways of answering that one. The first would be that I visited a really special place, Ascension Island, in 2008 and as soon as I arrived there, I thought: “I’m going to write about this place.” It always stuck with me.

Then, my second novel was very difficult to write. I felt a huge sense of relief after publishing it, and I wanted to do something big, both in length and in scope, next. This was just before the advent of covid. And I thought “OK, I want to do something about a journey, I want it to be a first-person narrative, I want it to be epic”. I was thinking about circular journeys. I was thinking about Atlantic green turtles, and the impulse to return to where one was born. I was thinking about that in humans, our psychological preoccupations with our past, with childhood especially, and from that fractal patterns repeating through the animal kingdom. Then suddenly the world changed for everyone. I was living in alone in an isolated village without wi-fi, and my story grew more epic.

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A green sea turtle on Ascension Island

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How about Leigh – why tell the story through her eyes?

This is probably unusual for a writer, but character and voice come very late on for me. So I knew it was going to be someone around Leigh’s age, and I knew she would be from the Netherlands for a couple of reasons: the risk of inundation in the Netherlands is as great as anywhere in the world because of the lowness of the territory, so it was the Netherlands as a sort of advanced example of what will increasingly happen throughout coastal regions across the world. So that’s why she was Dutch. And I don’t want to say too much about this aspect of it, but Leigh does have a historical precedent. Aspects of her biography are based on a very little known, early 19th-century Dutch East India Company employee, someone I found out about when I was researching Ascension Island, who lived through a period of extraordinary loneliness. So that was a starting point.

One of the things I was looking at was, why does she need the natural world so much, what happened during her childhood, and from that the aspects of her character and her family circumstances arose.

A few of our members have found some of the early bits of the novel hard to read, about the trauma that she goes through in her childhood. I didn’t, personally, and in fact I knew I was going to love the book from the very moment that you have her go into a river and experience a sort of epiphany with nature. Can you talk us through that bit?

That’s a really important scene. She’s 9 or 10, and she’s feeling particularly hopeless and she goes for a swim, feeling a dread and a hopelessness about her life. She enters the water and opens her eyes to what’s around her and she sees that everything around her is alive. She’s a part of it. She’s not separated from it and she sees that the river is not a medium to pass through, it’s an assemblage of life itself, and that activates her sense of wonder. It’s almost comparable to what many astronauts report when they go into space and they look down on Earth, which I think is referred to as the overview effect, when you have this sense of wonder and egolessness.

At that moment, she finds something that she knows she can cling to, that will keep her alive, will possibly allow her to find some sort of satisfaction, meaning or even happiness in her life. So everything that happens in the novel is sort of made possible in that moment. In fact, I would say she experiences a greater sense of wonder in that moment than when she reaches space and looks back on Earth as well.

For me, that idea of the sense of wonder was really at the heart of the book – particularly the moment when Leigh learns about the asteroid that isn’t an asteroid, and where it might have come from.

I’m not a scientist by any stretch, but I have a similar need for wonder to Leigh. That has enriched my life in all sorts of ways, and it’s really one of the reasons I turn to writing, to evoke that sense for myself. I know that probably seems hopelessly earnest, but it’s true.

Did you ever feel slightly daunted by what you were setting out to do – moving from the wilds of space to a deep trench in the Atlantic Ocean?

Absolutely, I’ve never done anything like this before, and especially at the start, I almost gave up so many times. One of the things that helped was I wasn’t writing to contract, I was just writing for myself. Another thing that helped was being able to go on long walks every day. I had a very strict routine. I was living in a flat on my own, but with thin walls surrounded by loud flats. So I worked from about 4 to 6:30am every day, when the building was silent because everyone else was asleep. Later, I would go for a long walk towards some standing stones about 3 miles away and think about what I’d written, and it really helped me picture the scope of what I was doing. I tried to make the material more manageable by breaking it down as well, into parts, sub-parts, with quite clear distinctions, almost like separate books themselves, before integrating them all again.

Do you think writing it during the covid-19 pandemic affected your writing – the claustrophobia of the crisis compared with Leigh, who is claustrophobic in her spaceship or diving?

Definitely. And I think I was also drawn to writing about the biggest possible journeys because I couldn’t leave my own flat. I was reading a lot about mountaineering, and the idea of expansion and voyages and mystery and pushing on that was thrilling to me and was something that was sort of self-sustaining for me during this period, like, there will be other journeys to go on.

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Martin MacInnes: “I was drawn to writing about the biggest possible journeys”

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You write about all sorts of areas of science here, from marine biology to the emergence of life to space travel. Tell us a bit about your research for the book.

These are all things I’m interested in and have been for a long time. I feel especially sheepish talking about this to New Scientist because I’m a novelist, I’m not claiming to have any kind of scientific authority, I’m just an amateur and an enthusiast doing all of this with love. I think some of these perspectives, like cell biology, can have a place in fiction and so I’m just trying to experiment with that. So I did read a lot, but I was also careful not to cleave too closely to research, as I think that can have a deadening effect. My aim with research was to get to a stage where I felt I knew stuff well enough that I could also invent, and that invention would appear strong. So yeah, the science is really important, but it’s not a research book.

There was originally a lot more in the part where Leigh is talking about the emergence of eukaryote cells – that conversation went on for many more pages, and my editor was like, “people are dropping the book right now Martin, you know you really can’t do that”. So it’s become much more concise.

When the book first came out, a letter was sent to reviewers talking about how you believed that “climate disaster has been and continues to be enabled primarily through our refusal to accept human integration in the natural world”. Can you tell us a bit about what you meant by that?

I think sending that letter out was a mistake, actually, because I’m not particularly articulate as a polemicist. Fiction is where I do my thinking. But I want to talk about this particular topic and I’m trying to talk about it in every interview I do, in every event I do. I’m not sure the phrase I used was the best – “human integration”, I’m not sure that’s fluent enough.

What I’m really talking about is a total lack of separation between us and everything else. That’s how I see the world. That’s how my fiction presents the world. But a lot of the time, when I’m reading English-language contemporary fiction, I get the sense that there’s a glass wall around the characters sealing them off from everything else, with all non-human life existing on the other side of that wall. So characters occupy a sort of zone of privilege inside, one of safety, and it’s almost like it doesn’t really matter what else happens out there, because we’re the main actors in the world. The world was prepared for us and has no meaning beyond our drama, ignoring the 4.5 billion years that preceded our species. I think fiction should challenge this consensus view – it’s wrongheaded and it’s dangerous.

With those tacit assumptions, it’s easier to continue the habitual behaviours that enable ecocide. Perhaps if we keep chipping away at some of these assumptions, we might take away some of the barriers to changes in behaviour. And I’m not in any way trying to diminish humans at all – for me, it just makes our existence all the more remarkable and interesting that we are merely animal life and that we are intimately connected with not just animal life, but viral life and bacterial life, all of this recombinant matter swirling around for billions of years. And that our species can be lost just as easily as any other species.

At one point, Leigh says that life is already alien, is already rich and strange. We don’t need to say it arrived seeded on a meteor to make more so. I guess that’s the same thing right?

Yes – and that’s why I’m writing science fiction even if I don’t take my characters into space, because that’s the lens to me. It is so incomprehensibly strange that we exist.

Why did you decide to have a section towards the end of the book, set in the future and told from the perspective of Helena, Leigh’s sister?

I always knew I was going to switch things at the end. I always knew the narrative was going to return to Earth and I was going to switch narrator. Obviously, that is a very risky thing to do, 400 pages into a 500-page novel, but on an instinctive level I knew had to do this, I had to shift it. When I was writing the space parts, knowing I was going to go back to Earth from a different perspective, that made it so much more interesting for me writing the bits in space. I was thinking, “OK, this is going to be placed next to a very different voice and world.” That gave a different energy to what I was writing, so it influenced what went before it. And I wanted to just challenge the idea of Leigh’s perspective being our only access to reality – that there might be a slightly different way of looking at her childhood.

And how about your extraordinary finale, “Oceana”, when you have your astronauts returning to a much-earlier Earth, and to a new beginning? Was that always the plan, when you were writing – and how has it been received by readers? It certainly shocked me!

It definitely wasn’t always the plan, but a return to beginnings came to feel more inevitable as the writing process went on. It still wasn’t there in the first completed draft of the novel. In that original draft, the “Ascension” part was considerably longer and contained several possible “endings”, including one similar to what became “Oceana”. So the seed was there. But the decision to commit to something less ambiguous came through conversations with my editor.

It’s obviously a really grandiose, melodramatic ending, and I was a little uncomfortable with that at first because I’ve never done anything like it before. Ultimately, I think it works as a scaled-up version of a theme that’s there more intimately throughout the novel: we are connected to everything around us. This is never clearer than in the moment of death, which is not an ending, but a transformation. And I think it’s possible to see something beautiful and optimistic in this.

As for how it’s been received by readers, this is something I’ve deliberately stepped back from. Readers can interpret it in their own way, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. I don’t think it’s healthy for writers to examine reviews and reader responses – you can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try to.

Martin, is there anything else you’d want to say to our readers?

First of all, I would say like thank you for reading, that’s a real honour for me. And hopefully I’ve given the sense in this interview that I don’t see this as being a dystopian novel or a doom-filled one. Writing it was celebratory for me, and it occasionally had moments with a sense of the ecstatic, and I hope that comes across. That’s really important to me, that one should ideally leave the novel with a sense of possibility and looking around slightly differently, even on a moment of hope.

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