We’re reading THE ECHO by James Smythe

17 Jan

Martin McGrath struggles with isolation and abandonment in deep space


HarperVoyager, HB £16.99

The science in most science fiction is nonsense. Normally this doesn’t matter because, normally, science fiction isn’t about science. Genre trappings – warp drives and blasters, time travel and aliens – rarely provide more than exotic set dressing and science, if it serves any purpose, most often provides the excuse for the author to work out variations on the theme of “if this goes on…” So (with apologies to Ian Sales) the science in science fiction doesn’t always have to be right, but there are occasions when it must sound plausible. And that, for me, is the niggling problem that undermined my enjoyment of James Smythe’s The Echo.

Smythe’s writing can be insightful and atmospheric and he has quickly developed a distinctive voice and interesting thematic concerns in novels such as The Machine (2013). The Echo is his fifth novel and the second instalment in “The Anomaly Quartet” – a sequel to last year’s The Explorer. In The Explorer the spaceship Ishiguro disappeared during a mission into deep space. In The Echo a second craft, the Lära, is sent to explore a strange void that is approaching Earth, discovers the fate of its predecessor, but also succumbs to disaster. Both novels feature damaged male protagonists who struggle with isolation and abandonment – not just in their disastrous space missions but in their equally disastrous private lives.

Space, for Smythe, represents an implacably hostile environment. More than physically dangerous, its emptiness detaches his characters from their humanity. It’s not just that his protagonists cannot grasp the nature of space or the weird anomaly they encounter; even trying to understand this outer space is fruitless when they (and, by extension, we) are incapable of grappling with the inner space of our own psyches. Indeed, for the men and women in Smythe’s universe the whole scientific endeavour is a lie, a false god to which they are deliberately sacrificed by forces who are no less indifferent to their fate than the vacuum through which they travel.

This is why it matters that Smythe’s science is so often plainly wrong. If an author is offering a critique of the scientific worldview, then the reader has to believe they know what they are talking about. This is even more true when, as in The Echo, a book’s protagonist and narrator is one of a pair of genius twins who are physicists, engineers, bureaucrats and managers of supposedly extraordinary capability.

Mira, then, should not be saying things that cause even this reviewer to wince. Pressure-sealed capsules will not protect a body from the force of acceleration (p32); neither Algol nor any other star will appear to move as an astronaut sits and watches (p66); the metal skin of a spaceship will not deflect all debris (p110). and a spaceship travelling at 43,000 miles an hour (p38) would take about 210 days to travel the 30 light seconds that the Lära appears to cover to reach the anomaly – far longer than the described voyage.

There is a long sequence early in The Echo where the crew of the Lära are prepared for the initial launch of their mission from a refitted International Space Station. The crew are to be placed in hibernation inside complex sleeping bays designed to protect them from the fierce acceleration that will take them to speeds never before reached by humans. They will be sedated using specially developed drugs to survive this terrible force. Mira is very proud of this technical achievement.

But none of this makes sense.

There is no need for a spaceship to accelerate hard when it is already in orbit. At a comfortable one G acceleration the Lära could have achieved its top speed in just over half an hour. If you were in a greater hurry, accelerating at about the average of a space shuttle launch (1.6 G) would take the Lära to top speed in around twenty minutes. A trained and fit crew could endure six G (the sort of force experienced by fighter pilots) and reach top speed in just over five minutes. The crew would be uncomfortable, but not unbearably so, and unlikely to be at any greater risk whether conscious or unconscious.

Many will read The Echo and get a great deal of pleasure from it. The quality of the writing is high, the protagonist’s characterisation is interestingly complex (though the women in both books are not well realised, serving mostly as victims who spur men to action) and the themes are intelligently explored. For me, though, Smythe squanders the trust that should exist between reader and writer. The Echo is immensely frustrating: flawed in a fashion that could have so easily been avoided.


James Smythe takes on the games engines in Postcards from Uncanny Valley (Arc 2.3), out next year. Subscribe to our newsletter for further details.

Also on the blog: Martin McGrath’s ire is kindled by Stephen Kiernan’s deep-frozen Curiosity.

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