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Martin MacInnes on Creating the Universe of In Ascension

Posted on 1st February 2024 by Anna Orhanen

Our Science Fiction & Fantasy Book of the Month for February, Martin MacInnes' In Ascension is the profound and luminous tale of a marine biologist on a quest to find evidence of the earth's first life forms in the depths of the Atlantic. Her journey leads her to investigate several related phenomena across the globe that seem to point to a pattern beyond human understanding, and in this exclusive piece, the author talks about the ways he used science in crafting this sublime novel. 

In 2008 I visited a remote, enigmatic island in the mid-Atlantic. Caught midway between West Africa and South America, with St. Helena the only land for thousands of miles, Ascension is a rocky, barren and unforgiving place, and like nowhere else on earth. Every year a colony of green turtles leaves its shores,travelling thousands of miles to Brazil before returning to nest on their natal beaches. Darwin visited the island on the Beagle Voyage, and instigated a stunning terraforming experiment on an arid mountain. The European Space Agency and NASA both set up bases on Ascension, tracking satellites and assisting in the orbit of the Apollo spacecraft. I became obsessed, and the very first writing I ever published was an article exploring Ascension’s bizarre history. I always knew I would write a novel inspired in some way by this place, and, 12 years after visiting, I finally hit on what felt like the right idea. I was walking the coastline of Fife in Scotland, one of the best places in the UK to see whales, and thinking back to the migrating green turtles, the history of biology and space travel in Ascension. I looked onto the horizon, imagining great distances and unbelievable journeys, thinking of circularity, of returning home to beginnings. With this, I had the foundations of my novel.

Inspired by the island that gives In Ascension its name, I decided to write about both maritime and extraterrestrial scientific voyages. Science is crucial to In Ascension, from the microbiology of deep-sea vents to the training and procedures of astronauts travelling to the far side of the solar system. Writing about such things, of course, involves undertaking a lot of research. But before the research, there is the wonder – the state of astonishment that I wanted to suffuse the novel with, and which I believe is essential to both scientific and artistic endeavour. One of the central concerns of In Ascension, and the driving question behind each of its voyages, is the improbability of life ever arising. I’ve always been fascinated by this. Every time I begin a project, every time I sit down at my desk to write, I remind myself that it is not ordinary that the world exists, that humans, multicellular life even, are relatively recent inventions. The perspective is helpful as I work on character and plot, perhaps lending a sense of precarity and contingency, even miracle, to the world I write about.

The protagonist of In Ascension – Leigh Hasenbosch, a marine microbiologist from the Netherlands – shares this sense of awe. Leigh uses science not just to understand the world, but to make her own life bearable. As a frightened and bereft child, her discovery of microscopic ocean life sparks an awareness of the fragility and beauty of all life. This fuels and drives her, and helps her escape her struggles at home. Her interest in science is professional and personal, rational and emotional, so it was important to me that any science in the novel should not just move the plot along, or show us something interesting in itself; it should reveal something about Leigh’s conflicted inner world. She is obsessed with pursuing and uncovering origins, both of life itself and of her own life. How did the miracle arise? What effect did her traumatic childhood have on the person she’s become?

In researching the molecular science behind the novel, I revisited favourites like Lynn Margulis’s What is Life?, and read many more recent accounts of the development of early organisms. I am not a scientist, however, and In Ascension is a work of fiction – there isn’t room to give in-depth accounts of scientific theories. I wanted to give a flavour of the science, emphasising in particular certain staggeringly improbable breakthroughs in early life, while hopefully communicating the wonder I felt while first encountering it. 

Some of the most speculative science in In Ascension concerns space travel. While it was clear to me that the rhythm of my protagonist's voice and the authenticity of her character are more important than, for example, the precise speeds of passing space debris, I found it fruitful to research and really think about what a 19 month voyage to the edge of the solar system might feel like. NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos have each conducted space voyage simulations, putting volunteers into long-term isolation, but in March 2020 I was put into isolation myself. Putting myself in the place of my characters, whose hearts were shrinking, muscles atrophying and vision receding from the lack of depth available to them, I imagined seeing Earth tumbling away through the porthole. For all the research I undertook here, these scenes are equally based on the apocalyptic days of early lockdown, the unbearable sense that the world as we knew it was no longer there. 

Symbiosis – the interconnectedness of organisms in different species – recurs throughout the novel, from attempts to explain how early life evolved, to reflections on biodiversity and ecosystems. It’s also present, in a more figurative sense, in the isolation and lack of  connections that haunt Leigh. And it was crucial in how I wrote the book, how I used research and tried to balance the science and science fiction alongside more character-based writing. After a period working on the science of the novel, I typically felt a strong, visceral urge to switch to more obviously character-based writing. The opposite also held true: when I wrote about Leigh’s relationship with her father, her estrangement from her sister or her guilt over her ailing mother, the urge to turn back to the science, and science fiction, was strong. Both ‘sides’, so to speak, fed from and nourished each other, symbiotically. They justified each other, spurred each other on, and one couldn't have existed without the other – that’s genuinely how it felt. It was as if the novel had come full circle, the science and the island that had inspired it unconsciously replicating in the techniques I used to write it. 

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