Where does a person begin? Where does a person end?
These questions, among others, are the preoccupations of Martin MacInnes’ three books, Infinite Ground, Gathering Evidence, and his latest, In Ascension. These novels cross genre boundaries of literary fiction, horror, crime, and science fiction. Set across the world (and, in fact, the universe) — from South America to Rotterdam, from forestland to deep sea to outer space — they take us far and wide, but remain grounded in humanity. His protagonists are often in search of something. Sometimes it’s answers, a sense of meaning; other times, it’s a home, or a feeling of connection. They come up against the profound weirdness and wonder of the natural world, and reflect on the profound weirdness and wonder of everyday life.
There are no easy answers in MacInnes’ invented worlds, just as there are no easy answers in our own. Boundaries blur, beginnings blend into endings, and circularities and cycles recur, always coming back to the idea that everyone — and everything — is connected.
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview MacInnes over email, about some of the recurring themes in his work, beginnings and endings, his literary influences, and how he approaches genre in his writing.
Pick up his books at the links below:
INFINITE GROUND: a missing-persons case is not what it seems, drawing an inspector out of the city and deep into the forest. Buy here.
NIRICA SRINIVASAN: One of the recurring strands across your books is illness — different kinds of illnesses, but I found it interesting how in each instance they seem to challenge the boundary of a human being, of an “inner” life and “outer” influence. The illnesses are invasive, something from the external world, but they are also closely connected to the internal. They seem to affect a character’s idea of their identity (as in Infinite Ground), manifest as (or from) anxiety (in the case of Gathering Evidence), or influence a desire, a drive towards something (like in In Ascension).
There’s also a tension that extends beyond the body, to personal space: houses, apartments, hotel rooms that are “invaded” by an external presence. In Gathering Evidence, there’s a phrase I found interesting, as the bonobos adapt to a new environment: “a reconfiguration of internal and external space.” What draws you to this idea?
MARTIN MACINNES: It seems amazing to me that the body - by which I mean everything - goes on, day after day; the trillions upon trillions of calculations, signals, substitutions enacted in every moment. It’s not ordinary that we go on! All this, of course, happens without any central or governing authority, it’s just this state of flow - astonishing, beautiful, but also precarious. The body is anything but a settled thing - it is constantly reshaping itself - and another thing it’s not is discrete. It’s not separate from the world, its outer borders are porous and changing all the time, giving way to and feeding off what’s around it. Typically, when I’m reading fiction, I don’t see any of this. (Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark is a rare exception; The Passion According to G.H. too.) There’s a default stability, repose, and coherence to most literary characters that I find completely bogus, and in Infinite Ground I set out to attack this, and to show this flux and borderlessness between self and world. I was pretty ill when I conceived of and began writing IG; it made me humbler and curious. But I don’t think what I’m writing about applies only to a state of illness; I think it applies to all bodies at all times.
This language of porosity and instability applies psychologically too, as of course it should, the mind being generated by the body. Your references to houses / abodes is exactly right. Gathering Evidence began, in its first draft, as a home invasion story. In some sense, everything I write is about this invasion; an invasion that happens because the doors were always open, the walls were never really there.
NS: Often, your characters come up against a new, “alien” intelligence that they struggle to comprehend, whether it’s fungal, animal, plant, or something unfathomable. One of the things that stands out to me in your work is that there’s also often the idea of another person as an alien intelligence — there’s a sense through your novels of characters attempting to understand someone else, a task that seems almost impossible to achieve. How do you go about writing these interpersonal relationships, the absence of a “perfect” understanding?
MM: I certainly don’t understand what the world is and what people are. I don’t know what I am. My characters don’t understand where they are; I generate various forms of ‘investigation’, often set against some looming deadline, as a way of dramatising this sense of not having the words for what one sees and feels, for coming up against, and being part of, an enormity that exceeds all possible categories and boundaries. This must be one of the reasons I write: to try to acknowledge this situation, while it/I remain. My first novel, especially, eschewed any sense of psychological realism basically as an acknowledgement that to pretend otherwise - to purport to ‘represent people’ - was just so ridiculously and offensively naive. You could legitimately generate billions of pages of text on one microsecond of consciousness - this does not translate smoothly onto the page! Of course, you can’t really go on writing fiction like this; or at least, you can’t go on publishing fiction like this. So I had to find other ways of dramatising what I was interested in. This is obviously not a new or original problem in fiction - as was clear to me when I first read Woolf, say, as a teenager.
NS: In your work, there’s often the idea of a simulacra — centred in Infinite Ground, but it’s an anxiety that characters in Gathering Evidence and In Ascension also contend with, the tension between the real and the simulated, and how to tell the difference. One of the most striking images in In Ascension for me was the carefully constructed illusion of a porthole, that in reality is an unbroken wall showing a live feed from an external camera. Do you think this tension between the real & simulated — or the boundary crossing of those categories — is an anxiety of our present age? What draws you to write about it?
MM: It might well be a zeitgeisty thing, but that’s not what I’m thinking when I'm doing it. A lot of what I’m doing isn’t necessarily logical, isn’t a deliberate process of representing something, but more a case of feeling my way around or towards something, pushing up against it, interacting with it. If it feels good, right, I follow it. The simulacra thing has clear political analogues (’fake news’ etc) and psychological analogues, from trauma and derealisation to the basic premise of people like Andy Clark or Thomas Metzinger - namely that ‘reality’ is a hallucination, ‘experience’ a naive construct. I’m interested in all of these things, but I’m a novelist, not an essayist or polemicist, and my writing is primarily a tool for my thinking, not an expression of it.
NS: How do you approach the science in your fiction — how do you balance real-world science and invention? And how do you approach genre? Is it a conscious decision to break from genre expectations?
MM: I’m an amateur and an enthusiast, an autodidact, anything but a trained expert in any of the things I write about, and I’m sure this annoys people, especially in the hard SF community. If I was going to write about some of the science I’m interested in with full fidelity, it would not be publishable as fiction. I have to take short-cuts, try to make it readable. I have to balance this against and integrate it with tone, character, story. The kind of research I do has to be a platform for the imagination - otherwise, it shouldn’t be in fiction. I’m not going to apologise for bringing microbiology etc into literary fiction. Some of my biggest literary influences work or have worked in the life-sciences; their imaginative reach and ambition - and in one or two cases even the writing on a sentence level - can often be far greater than anything lauded by literary critics.
I guess one of the reasons I incorporate aspects of genre fiction is to give shape to what I’m writing. My first three books are broadly crime, horror, and SF (though each of them uses aspects of all three). I can’t just set out to write something naked and genreless; I can’t get anywhere that way, everything just fades and drifts, and I can’t catch it. And I’m not consciously breaking from genre expectations. I look back on Infinite Ground now, and I think differently about the ending, the final part of that book. If I was writing it now, I might well do it differently. I had this in mind when I was writing the end of In Ascension. I do feel that if I’ve managed to take readers a certain distance, I owe them a satisfying conclusion. This doesn’t necessarily mean a clear resolution, but I perhaps need to give more than I did in IG. My younger self, I think, would be outraged to hear me making such concessions!
NS: This question is mostly something I’m just curious about! In In Ascension, when a character recounts a story about his walks on the mountains, he mentions “a figure just out of reach”. Was this a deliberate reference to anything in particular? It immediately made me think of Shackleton / Eliot’s reference in ‘The Waste Land’ — “Who is the third who walks always beside you?” — which I’ve always found such a creepy, affecting image!
MM: It was a combination of things. The Eliot passage is definitely creepy and uncanny, but I wasn't thinking of that. Woolf writes, in Sketch of the Past - one of my favourite books - about looking into the mirror and seeing an uncanny figure behind her. There are various ‘hauntings’ in romantic poetry, and some of that might have crept in - Wordsworth’s narrator visited by atemporal versions of himself, etc. There’s also the general unknowability of the world - that’s never far away…
NS: Were there other authors or works in particular that served as inspiration or touchstones in your writing of In Ascension?
MM: Stanislaw Lem - in his entire output, not just in Solaris (I wish more people had read His Master’’s Voice, A Perfect Vacuum, etc) - suggested the infinite possibilities of SF. Ballard too - especially his short fiction through the ‘70s and ‘80s, fusing space travel, fascination with the natural world, and dense psychological writing. I’ve already mentioned Woolf and Lispector - probably less noticeable in the text !), but the transition to the ‘Time Passes’ section in To the Lighthouse was a definite influence on the decision I made after part four of my novel - and people like Metzinger and Thomas Nagel (The View from Nowhere) were important too.
NS: Your novels are very carefully structured — starting, sometimes, with the ending, ending with the beginning. In that sense they do feel like they are circular, continuously happening, mirroring the circular patterns that recur across your work. How do you approach structuring your novels? How do you think about beginnings and endings in your work?
MM: I originally began In Ascension, before I’d really plotted it, with an ending, a return to Earth - it’s interesting how that beginning went on to influence the text. A friend pointed out that the two words of the title could be run together into a single world - Inascension - carrying an opposite meaning, a reverse direction. The first word in my first novel, ‘walking’, regresses to ‘swimming’ by the end of that novel - those cycles, that refusal of linearity and progress, in evolution as much as in fiction, have always interested me. It feels to me that we begin many times in our lives, and that the nature of time, and creation (and by extension, ending), is mysterious and unfathomable. I’m trying, in a small way, to be faithful to this impression of life.