Outer space – real space, not the space of zooming starships and photon torpedoes and intergalactic confederacies – is silent.
James Smythe’s novel The Echo captures this expanse of space in narrative that is at times beautiful and terrifying. Told from the point of view of Swedish scientist Mirakel (“Mira”) Hyvönen, it recounts how one focused and rational man reacts when faced with circumstances that defy the most meticulously calculated contingencies. Yet this man also carries masked flaws that are uncovered when confronted with the unknown and the unexpected.
Identical twins Tomas and Mira Hyvönen have known from childhood that they were destined to venture into space, ever since they spent hours building spaceships out of boxes and cardboard tubes in their backyard. Inseparable from birth, the brothers supported and provoked each other throughout their entire academic and professional careers to become brilliant and compelling cosmic scientists. What better duo to reincarnate the floundering global space program, which had been devastated 23 years earlier with the disappearance of the internationally celebrated spaceship Ishiguro (an event recounted in author Smythe’s first novel, The Explorer)?
When the Ishiguro, which had been launched with all kinds of pomp and circumstance, had been lost, all funding for space exploration dried up, and public opinion turned skeptical and remote. But six years later scientists found evidence of some kind of anomaly in the area where the Ishiguro had disappeared – “pings” would not bounce back, probes malfunctioned without gathering any information. And this anomaly was moving or growing or unfolding; it was somehow getting closer to Earth.
When the brothers showed their findings to agencies and investors, a panicked funding base responded. The ship they built with those investments, the Lära, was tasked with a mission to find and explore the anomaly, whatever it was.
Mira and Tomas were not blind to the errors that had doomed the Ishiguro. Their ship had been built to be lean, capable, efficient. The Lära carried redundancies of absolutely everything, including personnel, and would abstain from systems that had been in place on the Ishiguro merely for a false sense of comfort. Mira would be on board captaining the ship while Tomas remained behind at the helm of mission control, but they would be connected via continuously open communications, mimicking their more personal link as twins.
Mira may be a brilliant scientist and a leader in his field, but he is not the most charismatic leader of men. He struggles to relate to the other members of his team, and is less than successful on giving rousing speeches, to inspire, to grasp the human need to sometimes trump protocol – he even struggles to master his own movement in zero gravity, as his focus was less on training and more on the specifics of outfitting the spacecraft and making sure the scientific equipment would perform efficiently. But the team that he and Tomas have assembled are also the best in their fields, also driven to explore, to discover, so the anticipation is high as the Lära launches towards the unknown.
To say anything specific about the action of The Echo, what the Lära and her crew encounter and how they respond, would detract from the beauty of the writing. Sure, it’s a given that things will not go smoothly, that for all the contingencies there will be circumstances that simply cannot be foreseen. One could expect that challenges will take their toll on man and machine alike, and that the anomaly, once encountered, will hold far more questions than answers. But oh, how author Smythe gets us to those questions… its haunting and lovely and amazing.
Stark, unforgiving, wondrous and haunting, the journey of the Lära, and the toll that journey takes on its crew, especially Mira, is at times startling and often gripping, but retains an almost dreamlike, detached and vast under-current, just like space itself. The Echo is a very human story in a most extraordinary setting, and it’s a wonder to behold even when hope fails.