The Echo is the second in James Smythes’ Anomaly Quartet. It most certainly shouldn’t be read without knowledge of its predecessor The Explorer. What happened on that mission has a direct influence on the events of The Echo and on the fate of its crew. As a result, clues to what happened in The Explorer are inevitable in the review that follows.
It’s twenty years since the Ishiguro spacecraft disappeared into the Anomaly. Funerals with empty coffins have been held for Cormac Easton and his fellow astronauts. Only we, the readers of The Explorer, have any kind of idea about what befell the ship and its crew. Earth is determined to know and when the signs indicate that the Anomaly may in fact be on a path to Earth, the project is kick started that will see another vessel approach this mysterious, possibly hostile, emptiness in space. It is agreed, though, that there is no hope of finding the Ishiguro and the Anomaly itself will be kept at arm’s length.
If only it had all gone according to plan. The problem, though, seems almost predestined when one considers the circumstances behind the launch of the Lära, the new spaceship, which bears the name of the commander’s mother. The commander onboard is Mira but the commander on the ground is Mira’s twin brother Tomas. Fiercely competitive, the choice of which brother would take the flight to glory is almost left to chance but when Mira is on the Lära he is never able to ignore the voice in his ear. The only advantage Mira has over this omniscient presence is the gap of seconds that increases between communications as the vessel leaves Earth further behind. Everything, though, is supposed to be an improvement on the publicity seeking path to adventure that the Ishiguro pursued twenty years before. The Lära is a mission of science. But there are humans aboard with their own issues and when they reach that apparently dead bit of space called the Anomaly there is little they can do to combat its affect on them.
What follows are sections of extraordinary power as half of the crew make the journey into the Anomaly. If you’ve read The Explorer, then you will have a good idea of the horror that awaits them and, in this case, the equal trauma for those who witness it. It is relentless. Some fates are indeed worse than death.
What an exciting writer James Smythe is. The Testimony, The Explorer and The Machine take life apart at a fundamental level, reducing its (I almost said ‘victims’) protagonists to their basic instincts and emotions. As the outside becomes unknowable, the inside searches for truth. As a result everything is dwelled upon, whether it’s religion, science, family, space or oneself. This fragility is stirred in The Echo by the Anomaly, aggravating crew members’ guilt and torment for their families or loved ones, just as it had done during The Explorer for Cormac. Mira himself is a portrait in sleep deprivation. There is a line beyond which lies madness – several of the characters dance around this line.
The Echo is a compelling and mysterious science fiction adventure. As someone who can’t get enough of such things, it certainly fulfilled its mission of keeping me glued to the pages and this was a fast read. The Echo is also, though, a penetrating and rather ruthless analysis of people being broken down to the core of their being. It is bleak, very bleak. This is science fiction looking inwards, not the type that looks out to wonders beyond the horizon. This is space filled with horror.
The Echo is the second novel in a series and it doesn’t stand alone, nor does it end, for me, in a totally satisfying manner. I was troubled by it and it did mar my overall enjoyment of what is otherwise a superb novel. It does, though, leave a lot of room for the third book. I for one am ready for some answers and they can’t come soon enough.