Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel
published in 2013
It was the woman on the cover which drew me to this novel and the subtitle which almost scared me off again. The woman attracted me because it’s not often you actually do see a woman of colour on the cover of a science fiction novel, sometimes not even when the heroine is indeed a black woman. Seeing that got me to pull Ascension off the shelves, but reading the subtitle A Tangled Axon Novel almost made me put it back because it made it sound as if this was a novel in an established series, rather than a first novel. Luckily the inside cover blurb mentioned that this was Jacqueline Koyanagi’s first novel, so I took a punt. Not having heard of her or her novel before, in the end the cover as well as reading the first few pages were enough to make me want to read this.
And I’m so glad I did, because this was a glorious, wonderful mess of a book. Reading it, especially in the first couple of chapters, you get the idea that the author is only showing you glimpses of a much larger universe she’s been carrying around in her head for a long time, therefore occasionally making oblique references to things she knows and which are completely clear to her, but doesn’t quite explain to the reader. That’s the messy part of the book. The glorious and wonderful parts are its characters, its protagonist especially. Alana Quick is a sky surgeon, a starship engineer in the midst of a depression when nobody needs starship engineers because starships are obsolete. Her ex-wife left her for a career with Transliminal Solutions, the company that made them obsolete, her sister Nova has a flourishing career as a spirit guide, relieving rich clients from their anxieties, while her own obsession with space, with the Big Quiet, makes her unsuitable for anything but repairing spaceships even if the hard physical labour does her chronic nerve disease no favours. Having to deal with a debilitating disease while barely making ends meet, is it any wonder she stows away when the Tangled Axon comes looking for her sister? Or that she falls in love with the ship’s glamorous captain Tev — “all blond hair, boots and confidence”?
A love that may seem hopelessly misguided at first, as neither crew nor captain take kindly to a stowaway, though they have no qualms in using her as a hostage to get through to her sister. As to why they’re so desparate to resort to such measures, it’s because the ship’s pilot, Marre is slowly disappearing, dying little by little and only Transliminal could cure her. But you need something to trade to get anything from Transliminal and luckily Birke, the mysterious woman who’s the — boss? CEO? Leader? — of Transliminal in this universe is obsessed with Nova, so they’re gambling that if they can get Nova to agree to work for Birke, her gratitude will give them a cure for Marre. There may even be a possibility of a real cure for the Mel’s disorder Alana suffers from.
As the external threats mount up for the Tangled Axon and crew, it’s the internal tensions that ratchet up. With her sister on board, Alana, who grew up in her shadow, has to deal with her feelings of inadequacy, jealousy and love towards her. At the same time her growning attraction to Tev is complicated by the fact that she’s in a relation with the ship’s doctor, Slip, also the first person in the crew to treat Alana half decently. Then there’s Marre, losing cohesion, with parts of her body dissappearing and reappearing at random, who fascinates Alana; she keeps hearing her in her head. Perhaps the least complicated person on board the ship is the other engineer, Ovie, who just looks like a big wolf occassionally but at least isn’t emotionally complicated like the rest of them. And of course there’s the ship itself, with which Alana from the first feels at home and talks to.
Ascension then is space opera, but one with a love story at the heart of it. It’s not just Alana falling in lust and then in love with Tev, moving beyond Alana’s initial attraction to her as a symbol of everything she ever wanted to wanting her as a person, but also Alana’s re-evaluation of her relationship with her sister, relationships with the other members of the crew, Slip, Marre and Ovie and as always, the ship itself.
And that brings us again to the messy part. Because we see everything through Alana’s eyes and Alana is confused, blinded by her emotions, occassionally lying to herself and like so many people, often worst at recognising her own blindspots, there’s a lot that she tells us that turns out not to be true, or not quite as she thinks it is. This is the core of the novel. Alana is not an unreliable narrator in the traditional sense, but like most of us, she’s build up stories about herself that colour her perceptions. This is most clear when we finally meet and get to know her sister, who isn’t quite the shallow airhead Alana makes her out to be and whose calling as a spirit guide can do more than just massage the egos of rich clients. Alana’s prejudices and assumptions make her (and by extention, us as readers) miss plot developments that might’ve been blindingly obvious with another narrator.
What stuck the most with me in reading Ascension was the underlying theme of disability and chronic illness. It’s not just Alana having to deal with her Mel’s Disorder or Marre very sfnal illness, slowly disappearing from the universe. Tev only becomes a real person, rather than somebody to admire or fuck, when it turns out she lost one of her legs in an industrial accident. She does have an artificial leg indistinguishable from a real one, but only when she’s clothed and she’s still paying it off. For both Alana and Tev their respective disabilities are things they have to live with, not things that define them, but they’re not a DND style kind of weakness either, something to offset their strengths. Alana has to keep her illness into account when working, to make sure she doesn’t make it worse and if she can’t take her mediciation, it will fuck her up; she’s learned how to minimise the impact her disease has on her life, but doesn’t always succeed or have that luxury. It’s a very mature, realistic portrayal of what being chronically ill means and for me personally it worked.
What I also found realistic is how Alana’s health is part of her soured relationship with her sister Nova, who’s perfectly healthy but who as a spirit guide disdains her body. This is the first sf novel ever that I’ve read that could and did talk about health privilege. Science fiction over the years hasn’t done well in showing people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, other than providing a bit of extra glamour perhaps to dark and brooding antiheroes, so to see it handled so well here is appreciated.
In the end, Ascension is a love story as much as a space opera and it worked for me. The relationships between Alana, her sister Nova, Tev and Marre, Ovie and Slip were just a delight to see established and grow. If you like science fiction about strong, queer women of colour dealing with their disabilities, this is the book for you. If you don’t, what’s wrong with you?