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Review: In Ascension - Martin MacInnes

Genre: Literary Fiction, Sci-fi/Speculative

Published: Atlantic Books, February 2023

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

“A family is a group of strangers with a destructive desire for common nostalgia.”

Spanning from the vastness of space and the abyssal deep-sea, to the claustrophobia of a tormented childhood in a small home in the Netherlands; In Ascension may be the most ambitious novel I’ve read all year. Paralleling the macro with the micro, MacInnes takes on the classic central sci-fi questions of “where did we come from and where do we go from here?”, and answers them on a human-level as well as a personal one for our protagonist.

Our story begins in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where we meet young marine biologists Leigh Hasenbosch. Fascinated by the deep oceans and its ancient organisms, Leigh aspires to travel far away from the Dutch lowlands, and far away from the memory-haunted grounds of her complicated childhood. When a trench is discovered in the Atlantic ocean, Leigh joins the exploration team, hoping to find evidence of the earth's first life forms. What she finds instead calls into question everything we know about our own beginnings, and sets her up on a lifechanging journey even further up.

Every now and then you come across a novel that just leaves you in awe at the person who managed to birth such a complex idea, and translate it to pages. In Ascension is one of those books, and is a testament of mastery for the author. The thematic consistency in the parallel of aforementioned personal storyline with the larger sci-fi questions is incredible. Scientific elements are well researched and the character-work is overall good, although the author sometimes falls in the trap of “arm-chair-psychologizing” his characters.

The most impressive element of the novel is its structure; its literal “arc”. Through 5 parts, named after their settings, we slowly ascend from the depth of the deep-sea towards the sky, ever moving, reaching, flying away from our roots, only to curve back round again.

Although I admire the ambitious message the author puts forward, he admittedly needs a lot of big words to get said message across. That’s a nice way of saying; I found this book very verbose and overwritten. On multiple occasions, an excessively wordy paragraph or one too many repetition took away from the power of an otherwise great passage. Sometimes less is more, and In Ascension could’ve benefitted from an extra trimming of the bulk off the edges.

In Ascension was one of the few books I allowed myself to pre-order in hardcover this year, solely based off anticipation and trust in the author. I’m happy to say: I have absolutely no regrets and can highly recommend this to anyone looking for a though-provoking, ambitious speculative read that I feel will stand the test of time for me personally.

Find this book here on Goodreads.

1 Comment

May 26, 2023

I could not force myself to finish this book. I found it dull, slow, boring, badly written and badly crafted. The main character is not believable, the first person narrative is clumsy, the dialogue is awful. I could not find one redeeming feature in this work. If I lived to 100, life would still be too short to waste time reading it. Every other one of your reviews have been spot on for me. But maybe I’m missing something here because for me this books rates 1/5 - generously.

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