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The Echo
James Smythe
Tor, 350 pages

The Echo
James Smythe
James Smythe has written scripts for a number of video games, and teaches creative writing in London. His previous novel was The Explorer.

James Smythe Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Ernest Lilley

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Sometime in this century, after we've given up the idea of conquering Mars, the spaceship Ishiguro sets out on a glorious media fueled mission into deep space, and while it's out there, to explore an anomalous area of dead space that appears to be moving towards Earth. On board was the physicist that discovered the anomaly, a telegenic crew and intrepid reporter, and lots of product placement. They launched amid fanfare and disappeared into the vastness of space. Or into the maw of the abyss.

Twenty three years later, twin brothers Tomas and Mirakel ("Mira, because I would never use that horrifying name…"), both physicists, put together an expedition to find out what the anomaly really is, and possibly, what happened to the Ishiguro.

When a story begins with a scientist describing how carefully planned everything is and how nothing has been left to chance, except that the expedition is off to study something totally outside their experience, and possibly incomprehensible, you know things are going to fall apart at some point. The ship, the Lära, which the twins named after their free spirited mother, performs every bit as well as the pair expected thanks to their fanatical devotion to quality and planning. The crew, ultimately picked by Tomas, performs nearly as well, though there are a few surprises that should have shown up in their medical history that Tomas dismisses as unimportant. He's probably right, but seriously, would you select a chief pilot with a childhood history of seizures? Or a chief engineer with separation anxiety? Well, that depends.

To get to the anomaly, they boost at extreme accelerations that require the crew to be completely sedated and sealed into their form fitting beds. Mira's sedative doesn't put him to sleep, and he gets to experience the whole thing in helpless agony. Probably just an accident, and the book never says otherwise, but Mom always liked him best, and you know that's got to have bugged Tomas.

Mira, goes on at length about the strength of the bond between him and his brother (born three hours and forty-one minutes before him) but the tension between them is clear from the start. Tomas is dominant, the driven media darling who stays behind in mission control, while Mira heads off into the unknown. Mira says they decided who would go by playing a game, which he won, but from the outset it's much more likely that Tomas was playing a deeper game, a realization that Mirakel doesn't come to nearly as quickly as the reader is likely to.

Science fiction doesn't much care for the twin that stays behind, as you'll probably recall from Robert A. Heinlein's Time for the Stars. The Echo isn't an uplifting juvenile, so don't count on things working out for the submissive twin this time.

What the crew of the Lära find at the anomaly is and isn't surprising. The answer to the fate of the Ishiguro lies within it, to their surprise if not ours, and the space within has strange qualities, absorbing light and energy and interfering with transmissions. On the way out, one of the crew suggests to Mira that it's a wormhole, and he dismisses the notion. Would that the answer were so simple. In fact, the more the anomaly reveals about itself, the further from understanding the crew gets.

Is the anomaly a Big Dumb Object or is it a Big Smart Object? Does it warp space and time or is it outside them altogether? And (another one the reader sees coming long before the crew) once you cross into its space can you cross back again? The answer to that one is no, and yes, and we'll let you find out for yourselves, at least to the extent that the book gives up answers.

This is the second book in The Anomaly Quartet, following The Explorer, but the anomaly itself is primarily the stage for the operatic space tragedy that unfolds, as one by one the crew crosses over into its darkness and dies horribly through mishap or mayhem. Being inside the anomaly isn't fatal, per se, but the division of the crew between trapped and free, a line that keeps shifting as the ship and anomaly move, keeps everyone on edge. To no small degree this is a lifeboat story, with the survivors winnowing down one by one. What makes it bizarre is that the nature of time, or at least events, is different inside the darkness in ways that even the reader won't anticipate.

Though I doubt that he's thinking in those terms, the spare number of sets, the intense personal conflict and the relentless tragedy that unfolds in the novel are perfectly suited for a low budget movie. It could play out much as the ill-fated expedition in Europa Report (2013). In fact, if you change the name of the ship, the final line of that movie would be perfectly fitting:

  "We now know that our universe is stranger, far more alive, than we had ever imagined. The crew of Europa One changed the fundamental context in which all of humanity understands itself. I don't know what greater measure of success they could have achieved."  

The Echo is a tragic and compelling tale, and just the sort of psychological drama Kafka would have found comforting.

Copyright © 2014 Ernest Lilley

Ernest Lilley is editor emeritus of SFRevu (www.sfrevu.com) and the editor of Future Washington, an anthology about what it says it's about. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with that classic trope of science fiction, a red-haired heroine, and their alien lifeform, Rover the Dog.


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