A review of The Echo, by James Smythe
With Gravity lingering in cinemas, it seems a fascination with space travel and its inherent dangers is still capturing our collective imagination.
Last week saw the publication of the second part in author James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet, which deals with similar themes. The Echo is set twenty plus years on from the first part of the series, The Explorer – you can read my review of that novel here. After the disappearance of the Ishiguro, a spacecraft designed to travel further into the depths of space than ever before, fundamental changes have been made to the space travel programme. The purpose of the previous mission was to inspire humanity by reaching for the stars, but now hard science is the focus of the mission.
Led by identical twin brothers Tomas and Mirakel Hyvönen, the mission intends to travel on state-of-the-art ship the Lara to the ‘anomaly’, an uncharted area of space that is close to where the Ishiguro disappeared. Unlike their predecessors, the team have spent years plotting every possible eventuality and preparing for it as thoroughly as they can. They are determined to succeed where the Ishiguro failed and are scathing in their dismissal of its priorities, especially allowing a journalist onboard.
With Tomas manning mission control, it is left to Mira to command the shuttle. Although everything initially goes to plan, the team soon encounter an anomaly of their own: the Ishiguro, somehow still functioning despite two decades lost in space.
Determined to make contact with the missing vessel, the crew of the Lara cannot anticipate the horror that is about to consume them.
Like The Explorer before it, this is an understated yet chilling read. Although a tale of space travel, it’s more accurate to categorise this as a psychological horror, as it focuses on one man’s reaction to being pushed beyond the limits of human endurance.
Despite their status as identical twins, who have lived their lives as two halves of a whole, Tomas and Mira are fundamentally different characters. Mira lacks the strength of character needed to make a good leader and spends much of the journey worrying about how he appears to the crew and fearful of making decisions. After a traumatic take-off, he struggles to get to grips with zero gravity. Whilst the crew become increasingly acrobatic, Mira is unable to move through the ship with ease, instead clinging to the rails and dragging himself from room to room. In comparison, Tomas is assured and authoritative, issuing commands from Earth, even controlling the ship’s functions himself, leaving Mira constantly aware of the disembodied presence of his brother, yet still in his shadow.
As the situation deteriorates, Mira becomes increasingly suspicious of Tomas and fears that his brother will abandon him. This motif of twin hood is taken to its absolute limit as the novel progresses, with the boundaries between the brothers becoming increasingly blurred.
Similarly to The Explorer, the book examines the idea of isolation and the effect it can have on the human psyche. As with Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, Mira finds himself alone, contemplating his life on Earth and imagining various scenarios that might take him home, which ultimately begin to blur into fantasy. As stronger members of the crew perish, Mira is constantly confronted by his own deficits as he battles to manage the situation.
Throughout the novel, there is the spectre of the anomaly, a vast nothingness that seems to have bizarre and frightening properties. It is when we realise the full extent of this that the book is at its most chilling; I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but the scenes where Mira attempts to rescue a stricken crewmate are terrifying in their possibilities and only serve to chip away at his sanity.
Despite his genius, Mira is an all too human character and telling the story from his perspective allows the reader to be at the centre of the action, both physical and mental.
Ultimately, The Echo’s message is that no matter the planning, the money, the intellect that has been brought to bear on the task of space exploration, one man is no match for the vastness of the unknown that surrounds us.
This is a story that will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. I can’t wait to read part three.
Tip: make sure you read The Explorer first!
Find out more about the book:
The Echo on Amazon (affiliate link)
The Echo on Goodreads
Please note: I received an advance copy of this book as part of the Amazon Vine programme, however opinions are my own.