My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Length: 496 pages
Release date: 28 June 2018
Six girls, six boys. Each in the two separate bays of a single spaceship. They have six minutes each week to seduce and to make their choices, under the unblinking eye of the on-board cameras. They are the contenders in the Genesis programme, the world’s craziest speed-dating show ever, aimed at creating the first human colony on Mars.
Leonor, an 18 year old orphan, is one of the chosen ones.
She has signed up for glory.
She has signed up for love.
She has signed up for a one-way ticket.
Even if the dream turns to a nightmare, it is too late for regrets.
“There’s still time to refuse. It’s my choice, my final freedom, and nothing and no one can take it away from me–not the year of training, not the dozens of contracts I’ve signed, not the legions of viewers lurking in wait like so many moray eels behind their screens for the twenty-three weeks ahead.”
A long time ago, I read a book called Darlah–or, as it was renamed for US publication, 172 Hours on the Moon. Darlah involved three teenagers selected from around the world to go to the Moon, who discover that their mission is a lot more sinister than advertised. Darlah was a chilling horror novel that I still return to every now and then because of how it stuck in my mind. It was even, just like the book I’m about to review, translated from another European language. When I saw Ascension, with its “teenagers in space, everything goes wrong” premise, I immediately thought of Darlah. But Ascension isn’t Darlah. It’s not even budget Darlah, as I thought critically for a while. It’s a confounding novel of contradictions, and I’m honestly not sure what to make of it.
The English version of Ascension can’t be reviewed without addressing the elephant in the room: Either due to lousy translation or an insurmountable sociolinguistic barrier, the prose is a shaky mess that reads like it was written by a 12-year-old whose only idea of sci-fi novels comes from Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks. None of the characters, even those who purportedly have English as a first language, talk like native English speakers; clichéd dialogue and forced metaphors dog the entirety of the novel. On the other hand, the English version of Darlah contains barely any traces of Ascension‘s awkwardness. If not told, most readers probably would never have an inkling that it was translated. Unless the linguistic difference between French and English is somehow massively wider than that between Norwegian and English, the mere fact that Ascension is a translated work can’t excuse it.
Without reading Phobos in the original French, it’s hard to say whether its English equivalent’s stilted syntax is due to translating errors or flat out poor writing. My best guess is that it’s a bit of both. From what I was able to find on the translator, it seems that Daniel Hahn is much more used to translating literary fiction than sci-fi fare, which could be one reason why Ascension‘s tone ends up so jarringly at odds with its casual near-futuristic narrative.
At the same time, there are some features of the prose that likely wouldn’t exist unless they were that way in the original French as well. For example, characters deliver a staggeringly amateurish amount of exposition in speech, to the point where you wonder if the author has never heard of “show not tell.” It gets hilarious how often a character will say something alone the lines of, “Oh yes, my evil colleagues, our villainous plan is bound to work because of master machinations A, B and C, which as you all know use pseudoscientific technologies D, E and F. The heroes will never see it coming and will die all alone in space. Mwahahahaha!”
Every other scene, basically.
However, and this feels like the biggest however I’ve ever written, it’s possible to read between the lines and try to discern Victor Dixen’s original voice underneath all the cartoonish prose. Doing so, Ascension can be quite a self-aware, tongue in cheek thriller blessed with sleek plotting that knows and enjoys exactly how ridiculous it is. In this way, the novel is an acquired taste–go in trying to read it straight, and you’ll just end up with a headache. But go in knowing it’s intentionally and gleefully a crazy space drama, and it becomes the literary equivalent of a top-rated reality show: silly, wildly unrealistic, and really entertaining.
P.S. I feel obliged to mention that between the cheesy romances, casual racial caricatures and soulless capitalist villains, it’s amazing how much Ascension manages to be a stereotypically French novel. With regard to the casual racial caricatures, the French girl is a dreamy artist, the British girl is outwardly classy but inwardly a manipulative ice queen, and the Singaporean girl is a party pooper laser-focused on studying. And as for the soulless capitalist villains, Ascension‘s United States has been taken over by an Ultra-liberal Party whose platform is based on selling off every single public institution possible. This is not a joke:
“There are still so many things we could buy, and make profitable in our usual way: schools, public hospitals…Imagine the range of compulsory advertising during classes, all the way from pre-school! Reality TV shows about the terminally ill, with that final breath getting broadcast live!”
You gotta admit, socialism has never looked better!
*Thanks to Bonnier Zaffre and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*