Before starting this review I want to congratulate artist Chris Moore and the (uncredited) designer at Penguin responsible for the cover of this book. It was a brave design choice to park the title and author’s name on the little spaceship in the bottom left hand corner of the cover, but the masses of negative space created, and the minimalist feeling it lends the cover, immediately creates the feeling that this book is a classy artefact and delivers an image of smallness and isolation that is wholly apt. Very nice.
Toby Litt may be best known as an author of literary novels but he’s also self-confessed fan of genre fiction and of sf in particular – for example, he wrote a long piece in The Guardian on his debt to JG Ballard following that author’s death and his Myspace page includes authors like Stanislaw Lem and Neal Stephenson amongst his favourites. So Journey Into Space isn’t just an example of a literary author plucking an idea from the science pages of the broadsheets and stumbling around reinventing the wheels that sf authors have been using to build complex machines for generations. Litt, in writing a story set onboard a generation spaceship, isn’t working in ignorance of what has gone before, he’s making a conscious choice. And that raises the question of why he’s chosen this form.
Litt’s story begins as the last surviving member of the first generation of the crew of the UNSS Armenia is approaching death. Already the fate of the generations that will be born aboard this ship – who will travel without ever experiencing a departure or an arrival – is weighing heavily on the collective conscience. The Armenia is already outmoded – it has been overtaken by faster ships from home, parts of the ship are falling into disuse – and the young crew members are living in an environment that has been pillaged by their forefathers. The girls, for example, must wear hand-me-down bras because the women of the older generation refused to be limited to their allocation in stores. The links with home are becoming ever more attenuated. The motivations and the ideals that drove the mission in the first place are fading amongst generations of crew who know nothing of Earth and have no hope of seeing the new world.
Journey Into Space follows the fates of five generations of the Armenia’s crew whose choices are intimately tied to the fate of the mission. We begin with the beautiful cousins Celeste and August, who dream compulsively of Earth and become lovers and then follow their inbred son Orphan who becomes Armenia’s captain. When they receive the news that humanity on Earth has destroyed itself Orphan abandons their mission and turns the ship around. Orphan’s daughter, Three, devotes her life to the ostensibly simple task of making paper and ink so that she can write a brief – never revealed – letter to the universe. Jehangir, Three’s nephew, becomes The Nephew creates a religion around the life of his aunt and control’s the ship as he directs it towards its final fate. Finally we meet Herakles and Ultima, who will be the last of the Armenia.
These are a damaged crew. August and Celeste’s illicit relationship starts a chain of events (magnified by the news that mankind has destroyed itself) that leads to a kind of madness as the crew abandon rationality and science and slip into ever wilder idiocies and manias.
Ursula Le Guin didn’t like Litt’s take on the story. In her review in The Guardian (28 February, 2009) she wrote:
“The theme of the ship of fools is old and tried, and has provided matter for many a good story; but this is a ship of blockheads. Perhaps it’s a good thing to remind us of the dangerous stupidity of our species, but if there’s no end and no contrast to the stupidity, the story itself sinks into the inane.”
Le Guin is absolutely right – this is a ship of blockheads. It seems to me that Litt’s point is precisely that in a world where resources are reduced, where past generations have strip-mined the environment and where the ideals of the past no longer seem relevant, irrationality can, perhaps must, triumph. Litt’s crew are the logical extension of Coupland’s slacker generation, robbed of hope, denied grand aspirations and with their future already mortgaged by those who come before. Unlike Coupland, however, Litt here finds no humour or hope in their circumstance. With nothing to believe in, they come to believe everything. These abandoned generations respond not with sly humour and cool detachment but with righteous fury and with a determination to extract vengeance upon those who have gone before.
There are faults with Journey Into Space. The ten page detour where August and Celeste’s imaginary world is destroyed as an extended metaphor for their relationship turning sexual and begetting Orphan might just rank as the worst sex scene ever written. And, even given the unusual circumstances, it seems to me hard to accept that even very charismatic characters could exert such total sway over their crews. SF fans will also find some of the detail of the ship’s journey shaky – the nerd in me couldn’t help tut at the fact that when Orphan decides to turn the ship around he manages it almost effortlessly (with the aid of a handy nearby planet around which the Armenia – moving at a good proportion of light speed – neatly slingshots).
Ultimately Journey Into Space does end on a sort of hopeful note, Earth and the Armenia meet their fate but we discover that the story has been reported by those who, coming afterwards, have excavated this knowledge from the artefacts that remain. But it’s not much consolation.
Journey Into Space is hard, harsh and that makes it difficult to truly like, but unlike the shambling nonsense that results when some literary authors detour through sf, this is at least an honest attempt at speculative fiction that takes seriously the works on which it has been built. It’s not a great book, but it is an interesting one.