Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023. Exploring the natural world with wonder and reverence, this compassionate, deeply inquisitive epic reaches outward to confront the great questions of existence, while looking inward to illuminate the human heart

Leigh grew up in Rotterdam, drawn to the waterfront as an escape from her unhappy home life. Enchanted by the undersea world of her childhood, she excels in marine biology, travelling the globe to study ancient organisms.  

When a trench is discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, Leigh joins the exploration team, hoping to find evidence of Earth’s first life forms. What she instead finds calls into question everything we know about our own beginnings, and leaves her facing an impossible choice: to remain with her family, or to embark on a journey across the breadth of the cosmos.   

The Booker Prize 2023
Published by
Atlantic Books
Publication date

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Martin MacInnes

Martin MacInnes

About the Author

Martin MacInnes is a Scottish author, who has written three novels to date. These include Infinite Ground, which won the Somerset Maugham Award
More about Martin MacInnes

Martin MacInnes on writing In Ascension

‘I wrote In Ascension during a period when travel wasn’t possible, which was bound to influence the novel both positively and inversely: from the claustrophobia and regulation of domestic space in the novel’s ships, to the dramatic and expansive voyages they sail on.

‘You could argue the whole novel is about symbiosis, the theory that life thrives amid other life (and which has been underplayed in many popular and more aggressive accounts of evolution). And yet Leigh spends most of her time alone. That’s one of the ironies of the novel, and one of its driving energies. She can’t be other than she is – she’s not going to suddenly go around hugging people – and so she seeks out integration and satisfaction and recognition in other ways. Ideally the sense of wonder she feels from the natural world should not be a dead end, but rather lead to empathy, care, alertness. Communication. Leigh grapples with this; other people have caused her pain, and the single-mindedness of her interest in the natural world has kept her alive – should she risk upturning this? 

‘I’m exploring interconnectedness because it’s vital and relatively absent from English language fiction, too much of which draws a world in which humanity is walled off from the rest of creation, as if we were entirely self-involved, made from some other, more rarefied kind of stuff. This echoes and reinforces climate change complacency, and is dangerous. Addressing this in fiction is not just, for me, a moral imperative, it’s an artistic opportunity and a source of humility and joy.’

Read the full interview here.

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes

What the judges said

‘In this strange and wonderful world, every outward journey – whether to space or the depths of the ocean – is an inward one, as Leigh seeks to move beyond her troubled childhood. In Ascension is a Solaris for the climate-change age.’

What the critics said

Adam Roberts, The Guardian

‘Beautifully written, richly atmospheric, full of brilliantly evoked detail, never sacrificing the grounded verisimilitude of lived experience to its vast mysteries, but also capturing a numinous, vatic strangeness that hints at genuine profundities about life. Nobody else writes like MacInnes, and this magnificent book is his best yet.’ 

Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman

‘Its intellectual daring is formidable. This is fiction which is both stellar and grounded; an exemplar of what the novel alone can still do.’

Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times

‘To the handful of recent classics such as Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future can be added Martin MacInnes’ In Ascension… The richness of the novel is endlessly rewarding. In Ascension is a far-reaching epic that blends a deep scientific knowledge with a wide-eyed wonder at our place in the universe.’

Beejay Silcox, The TLS

In Ascension finds as much poetry in the human microbiome as it does in the grand revolutions of the planets. It is a love letter to life… a primer to marvel.’

Kirkus Reviews

‘Readers of speculative fiction will appreciate this intellectually rich addition to the canon, which considers what new discoveries might tell humans about ourselves and the planet we inhabit… An interesting investigation of home and interpersonal responsibilities through deep-sea and far-space travel.’

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes