Outer space – real space, not the space of zooming starships and photon torpedoes and intergalactic confederacies – is silent. It is vast, empty. It is dark. It is full of the unknown.
James Smythe’s novel The Echo captures this expanse of space in narrative that is at times beautiful and terrifying. Told from the viewpoint of Swedish scientist Mirakel (“Mira”) Hyvönen, it recounts how one focused and rational man reacts when faced with circumstances that defy the most carefully laid plans and most meticulously calculated contingencies, especially when the man himself 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 had dried up, and public opinion had turned skeptical and remote. But six years later the scientists found out that there had been evidence of some kind of anomaly in the area where the Ishiguro had disappeared – an area of nothingness where “pings” sent into it would not bounce back, and where probes sent to encounter it inevitably malfunctioned without gathering any information. And they discovered that this anomaly was moving, or growing, or unfolding – and it was somehow moving closer to Earth.
The brothers showed their computations and findings to agencies and investors, and a panicked funding base responded. Now their ship, the Lära, was set to launch with a mission to find and explore the anomaly, whatever it was.
Mira and Tomas were not blind to the egotistical errors that doomed the Ishiguro. Their ship would be lean, capable, efficient. The Lära would carry redundancies of absolutely everything, including personnel, and would abstain from grandiosities and systems that had been in place on the Ishiguro merely for a false sense of comfort. Mira would be on board as well, 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.
Yet human beings are variable things – few are the inclusive heroes that we read about in our works of science fiction and cosmic fantasy. Mira may be a brilliant scientist, 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 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, so the anticipation is high as the Lära launches towards the unknown.
To say more about the action of The Echo, what the Lära and her crew encounters and how they respond to it, would detract from the beauty of the writing – although it’s pretty obvious what will happen when they reach the anomaly. It’s a given that things will not go smoothly, that for all the confidence in anticipating any contingency there will be circumstances that simply could not be foreseen. Challenges will take their toll on man and machine alike, and the anomaly, once encountered, will hold far more questions than answers.
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.