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Journey Into Being

By Steve Finbow.

Journey Into Space, Toby Litt, Penguin 2009.

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The tenth book in Toby Litt’s proposed abecedarian oeuvre, Journey Into Space – despite its retro Isaac Asimov/E.E. “Doc” Smith-inspired airbrushed cover – is more a deposition on being than a full-blown space opera. A phenomenological science-fiction parable in which language, genealogy, and what constitutes “civilization” replace little green men, laser beams, and warp drives.

The narrative opens with August and Celeste’s attempts at a description of Earth without having ever known it, and without the vocabulary to do so – here already, in the first few pages, Litt moves away from the sci-fi genre and towards a meta-science fiction in which he examines the impossibility of writing about the future while being rooted in the now, the present. How can an author imagine something perpetually out of his grasp? How – in August and Celeste – can another world be imagined without the means to fully know it, to describe it? Journey Into Space is closer to the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip K. Dick in this approach to science fiction than it is to that of Robert A. Heinlein or Iain M. Banks – what is it with science-fiction authors and initials? Speaking of which, M. John Harrison is another author this reviewer can think of who works within and yet subverts and perverts the genre. This foregrounding of the difficulties of language in describing things – such as trees and what they consist of both physically and linguistically – bark/trunk against signifier/signified – is more Martian school (Craig Raine, Christopher Reid and Martin Amis) than The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury).

The novel, like the huge transporter spacecraft the UNSS Armenia, is sentient, aware of its contents, its destiny, aware of its inclusivity. Both August and Celeste are at home in its confines in which the past is to be reassembled and the future a distant desire. The present – in space – is perpetually postponed. Through their attempts at the description of earthly phenomena, August and Celeste search for a rather old-fashioned and Romantic idea or ideology – the Sublime. In the generations to come – some of which are dynastic, parodies of the fall of Rome or the spent promises of the free-love, revolutionary ‘60s – the space outside the ship is the vast expanse in which Litt’s characters exercise and exorcise moral, spiritual, artistic, and metaphysical philosophies. In this re-imagining of the Sublime – as in Augusta and Celeste’s meta-linguistic puzzles – Litt comes close to Jean-François Lyotard’s theory of the Sublime as being the boundary of our imagination and means of understanding the world. In a way, the whole novel is an ongoing dialectic between the description of innocence and the innocence of description.

Journey Into Space – sorry, Ursula K. Le Guin, but I think you missed the point – is concerned with childhood and parenthood (a revisitation and extension of themes Litt explored in Ghost Story), the expression of experience in a world separated from and deprived of concrete phenomena, and the future of humanity. The crew are suspended in space, time means nothing to them, they are child-like, their terra-memories are Proustian in their synaesthesia. Litt includes in the novels episodes concerning the evolution of language, a form of deep-space reality show, homo-galacticus, pornography, the ultimate holocaust, parenthood, suicide, euthanasia, polygamy, incest, sexual liberation, repressive fundamentalism, species death, and, ultimately, hope.

To give a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book would do it an injustice. Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that Journey Into Space is a “generation-ship story” comparable to the novels of Brian Aldiss, Harry Martinson, and Molly Gloss is facile. Litt’s latest is a 21st century Silent Running rewritten by Prelude-era William Wordsworth with footnotes by William Blake. Oh, and what is this obsession you have with trees, Toby? Dendrophilia?

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Steve Finbow‘s novel Balzac of the Badlands will be published by Future Fiction London in October 2009. At some point in 2010, his critical biography of Sergeant Bertrand will also be coming to bookshops near you.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 4th, 2009.