Friday, 17 January 2014

Book Review | The Echo by James Smythe

Twenty years following the disappearance of the infamous Ishiguro — the first manned spacecraft to travel deeper into space than ever before — humanity are setting their sights on the heavens once more.

Under the direction of two of the most brilliant minds science has ever seen – that of identical twin brothers Tomas and Mirakel Hyvönen — this space craft has a bold mission: to study what is being called ‘the anomaly’ — a vast blackness of space into which the Ishiguro disappeared. Between them Tomas (on the ground, guiding the mission from the command centre) and Mira (on the ship, with the rest of the hand-picked crew) are leaving nothing to chance.

But soon these two scientists are to learn that there are some things in space beyond our understanding. As the anomaly begins to test the limits of Mira’s comprehension — and his sanity — will Tomas be able to save his brother from being lost in space too?


Tomas and Mirakel Hyvönen have had exploration on the brain since they were bairns building backyard spacecraft out of discarded cardboard and handfuls of old wires and hard drives. Now the twins — identical but for a birthmark that sets Tomas apart — are all grown up and about to do for real what they've always dreamed.

When the Lära lifts off, one of the brothers will be on board; the other — the loser of the game they always play to resolve such situations — will man the microphones back at ground control. Their mission, should they choose to accept it — and indeed they do — is to investigate the anomaly Cormac Easton and the crew of the ill-fated Ishiguro stumbled into some twenty-three years ago.

In that time technology has obviously evolved... as has the anomaly this quartet revolves around; astronomers can now see it quite clearly, because of course it's grown closer. But the enterprising twins bring a crucial difference of opinion to the table too: a sense of scientific efficiency that the missing ship lacked.
Everything they did was wrong. I can pick holes. They launched from Earth, even though it made no sense, even back then. They spent money on automated systems because they believed they would add efficiency. They were wrong, as proven by their disappearance. They spent billions developing ridiculous gravity systems, something that the Russians prototyped back in the previous decade concerning gravitomagnetism. Any why? So that they could rest! So that they could feel the sensation of a ground beneath their feet! They took a journalist with them, because they spun their mission into something commercial, something outside science. They too a man who didn't serve a purpose with them on a mission that could have meant something. What did that cost them, that folly? They played everything badly, a product of moneymen rather than scientific design. It drove Tomas and myself insane. And when they went missing, the balloon deflated overnight. No more space travel. There is nothing new out there to find, and no glory to be garnered from dying in the cold expanse of space as they surely did. (pp.6-7)
There is, though... if not the glory of a great story then indubitably discovery. Thus the Lära launches, with our protagonist Mirakel — Mira to you and me — in charge of a complement of six scientists as luckless, ultimately, as the last lot.

For a few days, in fairness, the trip into space proceeds apace, but when the team arrive at their intended destination, they're stunned to see the infamous Ishiguro puttering about behind the wall of the anomaly. After all this time without food or fuel, and no breathable air either, its crew couldn't possibly have survived... so how can it be that someone is still alive?

Communicating with another craft was never part of the twins' plans for the Lära, so the only option is for three of Mira's people to spacewalk across, crossing the one-way border of the anomaly in the process. And come what may, there they shall stay, trapped in a truly gruesome loop that results, no matter what the poor few do, in death. Endless, senseless, horrendous death.

Unsurprisingly, the mission is declared a massive disaster. As Mira puts it, "the trip is a tragedy. We've already ruined this. The Ishiguro had the mystery to sustain it in history: we will have only the massacre." (p.155) But Tomas, for his part, doesn't dare despair, insisting — even as the Lära's passengers live and die before our eyes — that their sacrifice should stand for something, and his shellshocked twin doesn't disagree. After all, this is the very definition of their ambitions:
A chance to witness something truly incredible, to step outside the bounds of science as I understand it, to define a scientific theory. The reappearance of [the Ishiguro], the seemingly immortal cycle of life inside the anomaly: it could change the world. This is what we wanted to find, even though we did not know it. 
And the other hand: the reality of what is left, and how my days will end. (p.212)
Which is to say, if The Explorer is anything to go by — and it is — then horribly, probably.

There's a whole lot of other horror ahead as well; awful human horror which the author approaches head-on, describing Mira's detached attitude in the doing. He does not differ from his twin in this. Not initially, when Tomas and our protagonist seem like sides of the same coin. Eventually, though, they do diverge, beginning with some passing paranoia, and when tragedy strikes, tempers finally flare.

James Smythe develops this sense of tension to tremendous effect before getting his own back in The Echo's fantastic last act, which furthermore makes good on the implication that there are answers at hand:
"I am perhaps more practical now. Not that the stars are not magnificent, because they are: but I have seen them. I have spent my life looking at them. With this mission, perhaps there is a chance for something else. [...] What we will find out there might not be visually stunning, it might not be something that decorates a postcard, but it might be an answer to something." (p.14)
For the longest time, though, "there are no answers: it is as if we are being played with." (p.222) And we are. But the final chapter changes all that, satisfying and surprising at the same time as leaving the door open for so much more.

Though the title page promised that it was part of something larger, the first volume of The Anomaly Quartet stood alone wonderfully well when it was released a year ago, to the point that I didn't see the need for a series of sequels. Now, having read The Echo — and having adored it every bit as much as if not more than The Explorer — I get it. This is a markedly more ambitious narrative than I had imagined, and it's apt to get even grander as it goes.
What matters now is the people back there. If this reaches Earth, what happens? Does everybody cycle? Is that how this ends? In perpetual life? Do we ride it out until it passes? Will it ever pass? 
How much bigger can this get? (p.298)
That's the question Smythe has to answer in the third part of this so far, so superlative sci-fi saga, which can't come soon enough on the back of this bravura book. As chilling as it is thrilling, The Echo is a fully realised sequel that follows through on the awesome promise made by its predecessor. "How incredible and mystifying and wonderful it is, and how deep; how black; how terrible." (p.249)

How true, too.


The Echo
by James Smythe

UK Publication: January 2014, HarperCollins Voyager

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