Martin MacInnes on Crafting Psychologically Rich Science Fiction


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From an early age Dr. Leigh Hasenboch, the central character in Martin MacInnes’ stunningly immersive Booker-longlisted novel In Ascension, is fascinated by the ocean and by Niewe Maas, the icy river near her hometown of Rotterdam. It’s a place where she can feel at peace after her father’s explosive outbursts. She trains as a marine microbiologist, specializing in archaea, joins a team exploring a newfound trench in the Atlantic, and then is recruited for a NASA project that sends her into space. In Ascension is filled with mysteries, from questions about the most primitive of life forms to outer space riddles, always circling the basic question, What are the origins of life?

“I’m attracted to mystery,” MacInnes explains.

I tried to show throughout In Ascension how unlikely it was firstly that life arose, and secondly that it ever got beyond bacteria and archaea (arguably an even more improbable leap). Life is an unfathomable mystery, and my writing comes from a very unstructured, child-like sense of wonder in the face of that. This is the great mystery, the fact that the world is there, and in one sense the mysteries at the heart of all my novels come from that.

Writing mystery comes with opportunities and responsibilities—to engage your reader, grab a hold of them, and hopefully not to let them down at the end. But I have to be faithful to the way I see the world—I’m never going to wrap everything up in a bow and present it at the end, as that isn’t what reality is like. The mystery lingers on up to and into the moment of death—what is this place? What have I seen here? How has any of this happened, where does it come from and what can it mean? How have I possibly been alive?

Our email conversation spanned the globe from Edinburgh, Scotland to the northern California coast.


Jane Ciabattari: How has your life gone during these recent tumultuous pandemic years? How has it affected the writing and launch of your new novel?

Martin MacInnes: I began In Ascension just before the pandemic, when I was living alone in a small coastal village without WiFi. Writing the novel helped me in lockdown, structuring what would otherwise have been blank and anxious days, giving me a sense of purpose and hope. The pandemic inevitably bled into the novel, in both obvious and more subtle ways, but it certainly didn’t define it.

I write about characters as part of a natural continuum, as nothing without everything that surrounds them.

JC: You’ve written about Virginia Woolf’s writing as an early influence and how you can consider her work as science fiction—writing about time, switching scale (“This shift from the close-up to the vastly distant appears again and again…”) and Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the Andromeda galaxy as an influence on her work. Was she an inspiration for In Ascension?

MM: I wanted to evoke the improbability and precarity of life. Woolf has always been an inspiration. I think about To The Lighthouse a lot, in how it uses scale and puts clashing perspectives up against each other. That’s really exciting to me. Like everything I write, In Ascension is partly an attempt to show characters more tangled up in the natural world than literary fiction typically permits. A lot of what I read unfortunately shows “humanity’” with a sort of glass wall around it, the other side of which exists “nature” (microorganisms, animal species, plant life etc). I write about characters as part of a natural continuum, as nothing without everything that surrounds them. This doesn’t denigrate them, or reduce their complexity or mystery—far from it. 

JC: Was In Ascension your original title? What made you choose it? It both signals a state of rising (“Ascension: bodies rising and lifting off the ground, all of us airborne, all of us unlimited,” you write), a sense of Leigh’s emotional journey through her experiences, and the destination island of Ascension, a setting late in the book.

MM: The original title was Ascension, which I’d had in mind for years, but I had to change it because another writer was using it for a book the same year. I think In Ascension is actually better—more dynamic, more in flux, and, as one of my friends pointed out, a sly nod to a reverse meaning, if you run the two words together. The first seeds for the novel were set sixteen years ago when I visited Ascension Island, and learned of its unusual circumstances and history. I remember feeling I was on one of the most remote spots on Earth, almost engulfed by water; this was a very special place, and I wouldn’t forget the feeling.

JC: How did you go about researching Leigh’s childhood in Rotterdam? What is it about Rotterdam that suits her for the story you are about to tell?

MM: Rotterdam uses reclaimed land and advanced flood-defenses, which make it a sort of harbinger of days to come—parts of it are more than eighteen feet underwater. It’s also one of the world’s biggest seaports. Leigh’s discovery of the ocean in childhood saves her life and defines her future, and it’s a motif throughout the book—nostalgia, memory, a desire to return to the sea, where everything begins.

JC: Leigh studies archaea, an ancient life form, and joins a team aboard the Endeavor exploring a newly discovered trench in the Atlantic Ocean, deeper than the Mariana Trench. This experience engages her at many levels. She’s discovering the marine world, the world of scientific hierarchies in her team, the physical challenges of sea exploration (including the possibility of dying), the lure of the deep sea, and perhaps most of all the possibility of discovery—the mystery (and danger) of a deeper sea level than humans ever knew about, and the communication that seems to be coming from outer space.

For non-scientists, it’s a lot to absorb, yet you present the information clearly, with the human interactions at the fore. What sort of research and knowledge was required to write this section? Did the example of Dr. Alan Jamieson, a Scotsman, the deepest-diving British citizen in history and the first to visit the hadal depths (greater than 6,000 meters) on expeditions that uncovered new species, have an influence?

MM: The skeleton of this part is based on a journey I took in the mid-Atlantic in my twenties—the size and layout of the boat, the labyrinthine nature of its interior, odd maritime details and rituals, uncanny dread at the depth of the ocean beneath you. I remember it all vividly, as a time of real excitement and a sense of almost unlimited possibilities. I’ve always been curious about hydrothermal vents, archaea and first life, and had long wanted to do something with that. So I fused the two things—memories of the mid-Atlantic and theories about archaea.

I didn’t know about Jamieson. That’s interesting. I read a load of research papers, which I always do when I’m in the early stages of writing—among other things, novel writing is an excuse to do esoteric research. The point of the research isn’t necessarily to get all the details correct—I never claim I’m doing that—but rather to imagine myself there, in that environment, living that life. Once I could do that, writing “Endeavor” was easy.

JC: Are Leigh’s wonder about the origins of life and her sense of cellular evolution shaped by the Gaia hypothesis, which envisions the Earth as a single organic system?

MM: Toward the end of the book, Leigh describes life as “One single, original organism, distended enormously through space and time—a 4.5 billion-year migration.” So yes, there’s definitely a Gaian influence there. It’s a healthier and truer perspective than the exceptionalism that’s dominated Western thinking for the past few hundred years.

The cellular stuff comes mainly from Lynn Margulis, who tends to get marginalized next to her colleague James Lovelock, and who was a really brilliant and original writer and thinker in her own right. Her theory on the origin of life—and on some of the neglected mechanisms behind evolution—are all about slippery edges, unstable boundaries, organisms blending and merging. This radical instability rang true for me, biologically, ecologically, and perhaps psychologically too, and seemed under-utilized in fiction.

JC: After Leigh’s work on the Endeavor, she joins a top-secret ICORS (Institute for Coordinated Research in Space) team based in California, Beijing and Moscow. She settles into China Lake, in the Mojave desert (location of the Naval Air Weapons Station in real life), and works on cultivating archea as food for space travel. I’m curious, is her project based on current or recent research?

MM: Not to my knowledge! There have been various food labs on the ISS [International Space Station], but I purposely avoided reading about them as I had a clear idea of what I was doing and I wanted to run with it. I’m not aware of any such research involving archaea, and would be surprised to hear of it. I was interested in archaea as an instant route to the deep past and life’s beginnings, a still free-floating organism in the world and a component of every cell in our bodies. 

JC: Leigh finds herself on a three-person team training for a nineteen-month space mission. Your details are extraordinary. How did you accumulate so much information on top-secret space travel—describing the Mojave and other bases where Leigh and her two crewmates, Tyler and K, train, explaining their training process, their down time, and the emotional impact of the isolation, discipline and focus. The Goldstone Observatory in the Mojave, which is based on a real place, a NASA spot for communicating with interplanetary space missions. Did you visit these sites? Interview astronauts? Examine spacecraft?

MM: I’m glad you liked the detail! I like thinking about and writing out all the granular stuff. It has to seem real to me as I imagine it or it falls down on the page. I didn’t interview astronauts or visit any sites—I just thought and read about it all at great length. I had hundreds of pages of notes, reams of cardboard folders, and went on long walks every day where I thought through everything. The thing grew and grew and grew, until it was all I thought about. I was able to obsess about this with a single-mindedness unusual even for me, partly because of my living circumstances at the time, alone in an old flat in a small village during lockdown. I wanted—needed—a project so vast and dense that it could transport me completely, and In Ascension did that.

I drew maps and sketched ships—things I’ve certainly never done before, and really never imagined I would. I had to really commit to the ships or it wouldn’t have worked. I had the idea that I might research various fictional and real-life spaceships, but in the end I just made it all up. I’m sure there are many technical errors in what I’ve done, but the process of creating that ship, Nereus, piece by piece, was really crucial to the book, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It also let me find and weave in digressions and details that were important thematically and to the plot: the imperative of false windows meaning the crew never directly see outside; the use of their life-sustaining water supply as a radiation barrier wrapping the ship.

I wanted—needed—a project so vast and dense that it could transport me completely.

I looked at pictures of Goldstone and the land around it. The Mojave, and China Lake. Kourou in French Guiana, which I’ve been interested in for many years. And I read a wonderful book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux, which helped me imagine the crew moving around, what it might feel like for them, in training and in space.

JC: Leigh’s abusive father Geert, who died when she was in college, her mother Fenna, an emotionally withdrawn mathematician, and her younger sister Helena, are key characters in your opening section, shaping Leigh’s psyche; they fade into the background in her adult life. Yet they appear continuously in her memories and her motivations. As her mother seems to develop dementia and declines, Leigh feels guilty for not helping. What was your process for inserting references to Leigh’s family into her musings and memories?

MM: The more I wrote about the big, dramatic science-fiction parts, the more I craved the opposite, the internal, psychological and familial. So I went from one scale to the other, and it was like one re-reinforced the other. I’d write for days on one aspect, exhausting it, then go the other way until I had to stop. This was there in the first draft, but in a less developed way—my editor James Roxburgh helped me to really bring this out.

There’s a lot of snobbery about Science Fiction, this weird assumption that the worst examples of it are indicative of the genre generally—a standard that isn’t held for any other genre. I wanted to write psychologically rich, thematically dense, lyrical and propulsive science fiction—basically, to combine all the different things I love in literature, from Woolf to Ballard, le Guin to Banks to Lispector.

JC: The warping of time, and a mysterious illness that affects the sea-diving team in Leigh’s time on the Endeavor, repeat throughout the book. Is there a basis for expecting space travel and hadal work to affect the human organism in this way? Is that the reason for quarantine for a returned crew? What are the dangers?

MM: One of the reasons for quarantining a returned crew is the risk of inadvertently exposing Earth to hazardous microorganisms. I love the rituals around these journeys, the granular detail. We’re talking about people leaving and re-entering the world—it’s big stuff, and hard to comprehend. I think a lot of the justification for quarantine rituals is extra-medical—they’re more about trying to come to terms with the events themselves, to reason them out, incorporate them. There’s a comparison to be made with the use of ritual in religion. As for the warping of time, etc.—again, as far as I know, that’s from me.

JC: How were you able to capture the deteriorations and experiences of Leigh and her two crewmates after ascent in Nereus?

MM: This was where ESA [European Space Agency] and NASA journals came in useful. There was enough research, through simulation, training, and from the ISS, to give me a starting point, something to think about, but it’s all so speculative and uncertain that I had license to go anywhere really, to follow my instincts and go wherever felt truest for the characters and the story. Hearts shrink; eyesight degrades; you retreat into yourself; perhaps you experience something like the overview effect; beyond this, no one really knows anything.

One thing they’re not going to be feeling is a constant sense of awe; they’re going to be bored, anxious, they’re going to complain about the toilet and the meals, bicker with each other about the way they breathe and eat. Even in the most dramatic and otherworldly setting, the smallest things will occupy them. This was one way of humanizing the astronauts and making their experience relatable. There’s some humor there, I hope—maybe even some truth.

JC: How have your own experiences, including an awareness of climate change and corporate involvement in space travel, influenced this novel?

MM: Ruthless corporate profiteering runs through the novel, from memories of the Dutch East India company in part one—the world’s first multinational—to the competition for off-world mining rights in part four. It’s a deliberate and pretty clear parallel. The main themes of In Ascension—interconnectedness, the open borders between human and non-human, the radical improbability and wonder of life—each point out the absurdity of what we’re continuing to do to the world. Capitalism, and the endless search for growth and expansion, are foundational and central to catastrophic climate change, and if we go on like this we’re going to burn up everything until there’s nothing left.


In Ascension by Martin MacInnes is available from Black Cat/Grove, an imprint of Grove Atlantic.

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Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lamber is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes about arts, entertainment, lifestyle, and home news. Nicole has been a journalist for years and loves to write about what's going on in the world.

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