LitStack Review: ‘The Echo’ by James Smythe

by Sharon Browning
The EchoEcho
James Smythe
Harper Voyager
Publication Date:  January 28, 2014
ISBN 978-0-06-228728-1

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 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 carefully laid plans and most meticulously calculated contingencies.  Yet just like the plans and calculations, 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; that 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.

I feel better that Tomas is on the ground, though.  That he is watching over us.  He is rooted, and that’s a nice feeling.  If something goes wrong on the trip (which it will not, because we have covered every single eventuality, because we are those sorts of people) he will be there to steer us home.  He can override the controls, and there might be lag, there might be a delay, but he would get us home.  I am comfortable in that knowledge.  It makes me feel good; we have always steered each other.

Yet human beings are variable things – few are the inclusive heroes that we read about in our action packed works of science fiction and cosmic fantasy.  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 be top notch and 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.

This is a mission.  It has always been clear to us, to Tomas and myself, that is, and that it should be treated with the utmost seriousness.  It may not be glorious, not yet, but there has never been an actual mission to space.  Before this, everything was simply to see if we could do it.  It was a desire, a proving of ourselves as a collective people.  Breaking Earth’s atmosphere?  We can reach it.  The moon?  We can land on it.  It was showing off, puffing out our chests, planting flags.  This time, there is a reason to be here.  The Ishiguro was the most selfish, vainglorious expedition.  Dr Singer’s research was only an afterthought, a bonus thing that he could do while they were up there.  It didn’t matter, because what mattered was how shiny the crew were, how beautiful, how unstable.

We have a task, and it’s hugely important.  I look at the results of the anomaly while we are up here, and I think that we do not know what this is:  that it is so far beyond our comprehension that this discovery, this mission, it could change everything.   It could be the thing that realizes our position in the universe.  People search their entire lives for an answer, and maybe this is it:  maybe this anomaly might give us a clue as to our beginnings.  It will not be showy, and it will not be glorious, but it might be an answer.

A scientist wants nothing more.

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 – not that it’s not pretty obvious what will happen when they reach the anomaly, what they discover, but how the action unfolds.  It’s a given that things will not go smoothly, that for all the confidence they have in anticipating any contingency there will be circumstances that simply could not 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.

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.

This is the second in a series of books known as the Anomaly Quartet, but it reads exquisitely on its own.

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