There’s a room in a lab in Minneapolis known as, and confirmed by Guinness World Records, as ‘the quietest room on Earth’. Contrary to other mediation, or sensory deprivation rooms, which have a decibel level of 30, this anechoic chamber has a level of -9. In this 99% soundless room in Orfield Laboratories all you can hear is yourself – heartbeat, breathing, stomach growling – and the longest anyone has lasted in there in the dark is 45 minutes. Imagine then being fated to repeat this unpleasant process over and over, not being able to escape, while in the greatest vacuum of all – space. Where famously no one can hear you scream.
In the near future, near enough for manned space travel beyond Mars to be conceivable, far enough for it to be possible, a pioneering voyage is being planned. Twenty years previous to it a state-of-the-art ship departed on a fact-finding mission and promptly disappeared into what researchers later called ‘the anomaly’. Now genius twins Mira and Tomas Hyvonen are leading an investigation into what happened. Because they’ve designed every single aspect of the project together, one must stay on Earth to control the mission from the ground, the other is required to command the specially designed ship.
Told from the point of view of second-born twin Mira, he reveals that thanks to the tried and trusted decision-making aid of coin tossing, he is the one to leave Earth for ‘the anomaly’. Heading a crew of 6, carefully chosen for their various skillsets, he begins his story on the New International Space Station; the launch point. The team is assembled, the goodbyes to their families said (though not for Mira – he and Tomas are to be in constant contact; co-captains), and shots given to send them to sleep for the first part of the journey. Mira is apprehensive; as an insomniac he is nervous that the concoction won’t be enough for him, but in an act of typical sibling rivalry and one-upmanship he refuses to voice his concerns. They settle into their specially designed beds, the engines begin to rumble, and they’re off.
Almost from the get-go the brothers’ well-laid plans are compromised. Despite Mira’s explanation that most every incidence has been thought of and covered it’s not long until one of the pilots suffers a seizure and a subconjunctival haemorrhage, a clot in her eye caused by the change in pressure. The twins’ assumed harmonious teamwork begins to show its cracks – cocksure Tomas is revealed to have known about a history of seizures in the pilot and not thought it relevant to share with more timid Mira. Where Mira begins with the assertion that they are monozygotic twins and therefore identical in every way possible, as his narrative continues we learn that there are more fundamental differences than similarities, beginning with the port-wine birth mark covering much of Tomas’s face.
The Echo is an interesting title, in that like the twins’ skewed synchronicity the echo in question is not what it seems. Smythe plays with the idea of mirror images, repeated patterns, exact copies, creating an unsettling world in which things can seem right but are very, very wrong.
Although set in space and undeniably a science fiction novel, The Echo is concurrently an exercise in character. Mira’s unreliable narrative begins with his apparent inability to lose consciousness for the jump into speeds too dangerous to experience awake, and it advances with his increased paranoia and distrust for his brother. He says that the pair used to talk into the night when they were children sharing a room, and that he continued to do so, to air his thoughts out loud, long after they acquired their own spaces. This is what it feels like, the inward thoughts of a panicked man losing control, though less stream of consciousness and more captain’s log.
Once the anomaly is reached a curious image appears on their radar and it’s up to three of the crew to investigate. As is absolutely expected everything that can go wrong does go wrong and the nature of the anomaly – a totally dark sheet in space, an inky blackness that can’t be explained – begins to be observed properly for the first time, in all its terrifying glory.
Here is where the quest for survival begins. Who to trust? When to stop? What is the worth of a single life? In the anomaly time and space as they know it is deeply altered and, as with any science experiment, the only way to even begin to understand it is to use both a control and a variable. Or, as in the old days, a sacrificial lamb to appease the gods.
The tone throughout is despondent. Smythe captures Mira’s disaffected, confused (both socially and scientifically), suspicious voice beautifully, and the supporting characters seen through his eyes are distinctive and given weight. Stripped of the sci-fi elements it could easily and brilliantly be the story of a shipwreck survivor, yet the tense and devastatingly imaginative plot is as gripping as it is disturbing and throws up as many questions about the human condition as it does about mysterious threats from outer space.
If The Echo, the second of two books in a series known as The Anomaly Quartet, is anything, it’s an ode to hopelessness. Although it’s in this quartet it is also entirely stand alone, another more meta feature of its ‘all is not as it seems’ theme. The utterly logical and unrelentingly scientific Mira exclaims that the anomaly is a “demon, playing with time”, helplessly giving it a godlike assignation not unlike the ancients of yore worshipping the sun and the moon in an effort to make sense of them.
In the never-ending expanse of inescapable space with little or no chance for survival spending some time in a hallucination-invoking chamber with no echo doesn’t seem so bad. Just don’t exceed 45 minutes.
First Published in The Tuam Herald on March 12th 2014