Taking an ironic, Icarian twist on Steve Tomasula's Ascension, Stuart Moulthrop situates Tomasula's novel in a subterranean, encyclopedic lineage that includes print fictions like Joyce’s Ulysses, Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – novels that are, as Edward Mendelson put it, “the products of an epoch in which the world's knowledge is larger than any one person can encompass.” It's an experimental lineage that is, arguably, one of the more noteworthy carryovers from print to digital literature; a genre that Moulthrop (2013) and his near contemporary Michael Joyce (2007) have termed the “novel of internet.”
I want to stay with the trouble, and the only way I know to do that is in generative joy, terror, and collective thinking.
- Donna Haraway
Steve Tomasula’s latest novel delivers amply on Haraway’s formula. The book overflows with discovery, both scientific and artistic, a performance that should spark joy for some readers (this one, anyway). It weaves a structure for “collective thinking” that spans generations, disciplines, and personal histories. As for terror, it flirts with a maximum survivable dose. There is a numinous Terror Bird, a never-ending War on Terror, an ominous bead of amber; and above all, the existential horror of sixth extinction, drumming like an execution march through the book’s main sequence. In this respect the title takes on an ironic, Icarian twist. Ascension goes before a fall. Everything that rises must submerge. In this respect Ascension seems to branch off from the line of Whitehead and Haraway, where the encounter with systemic complexity is didactic or monitory – “collective thinking” in the service of critique, invention as intervention – and ends up in a darker part of the intellectual forest; or to shift to the temporal axis, it speaks from a time well past the beginning of the end.
The embrace of end times makes Ascension fundamentally challenging as a matter of doctrine, a point that needs further discussion; but any consideration of this book must first account for its formal challenges. Unless one is familiar with what Edward Mendelson called “encyclopedic novels,” certain aspects of Ascension may be daunting. Tomasula lays on an enormous mass of promiscuous detail, drawing deeply on the history of biology, photography and film making, the micropolitics of laboratory science, the macropolitics of drug development, various pop- and sub-cultures of internet life, including the folkways of virtual worlds – weaving through all this the dire realities of a collapsing biome. There is a tendency to produce extended lists of items and evidence, not quite “Latour litanies” (Bogost, 38) but close. These data flows are vested in an intense profusion of characters over whom the narrator flits like an endangered pollinator, opening scenes with an arresting phrase and often identifying the person to whom it applies after many words of exposition. The mini-game of find-the-character-name recurs regularly.
All this is easier to take if the reader has spent time with books like Joyce’s Ulysses, Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – novels that are, as Mendelson put it, “the products of an epoch in which the world's knowledge is larger than any one person can encompass” (Mendelson, 1267). This predicament obliges authors to work by synecdoche, with fragments and vignettes standing in for larger assemblages. Encyclopedia offers one way to think about scheme or diagram for these books in general. Forest, jungle, and rhizome might be more appropriate for this instance.
An encyclopedia is a synchronic project, but the logic of rhizome is iteration and spread. Imbued with this idea, Ascension regularly attempts to escape its formal boundaries, offering more than the usual prose narrative experience. Full-color images appear throughout the book, beginning with maps and zoological illustrations in the first chapter and proceeding through photography and video stills in the middle chapter to digital imaging in the third. These images intrude into the word flow, reshaping the typographic field. They may break symmetrically across pages (29-30), pulling the reader out of the automatism of conventional reading to confront the book as artifact. In the main-stage chapter “Ascension,” the graphic inserts regularly feature Quick Response (QR) codes, inviting the reader into a multi-device ensemble. With tricks like these, Ascension everts the modernist encyclopedia-novel, offering its own version of that interesting hybrid, the “novel of internet” (see Joyce 2007; Moulthrop 2013).
These departures are by no means gratuitous. This is a book about physical reality, concerned with structures morphological, chemical, and especially temporal. The historical architecture of the novel presents its own challenge. The time under narration covers about a century and a half, from the period of the U.S. Civil War to an undefined point not too far beyond the present, separated by an extended stopover in the mid-1980s. There are three chapters of curiously unequal length. Chapter I, “Transformation,” goes on for about 60 pages; Chapter II, “A Little Truth,” takes the next 100. The final chapter, which shares its title with the book as a whole, runs close to 300 pages, giving it the mass of a novel in its own right. The project thus poses a structural enigma. Is it a novel of the near-present augmented by a pair of historical preambles? A stuttering start for a dive into the void? A three-stage rocket, upended? Thinking again about those tricky trans-mediations, might Ascension be a book trying to reach escape velocity, attempting to become something else?
For some of us whose cultural entry cue was “the end of books,” this suggestion may be evocative. Skepticism about the limits of print culture hearkens back to the 1980s of Tomasula’s second chapter, perhaps a few years after the events depicted, which seem to fall around 1985. It was about that time that people began to speculate about hypertext and hypermedia, dreaming up stories that would shift and branch and change every time you read them (see Douglas). Not much later (1989), the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould published Wonderful Life, his book about the strange morphologies of soft-bodied animals in the Burgess Shale, with which he challenged orthodox assumptions about evolution as a seamless story of ascent (see Gould). A poignant reflection in Tomasula’s second chapter, delivered by the rebel entomologist Jane Korzeniowski, entwines these strains of thought:
One day, we’ll see that the story of evolution is far too messy to be shoehorned into the 19th-century, linear plot Darwin gave us. Or even represented by a cloud, or squiggles, or – I don’t know – a tangled ball of yarn. Maybe the best way to represent the Evolutionary Tree would be to knit it like a sweater. And once people see my feather louse, they’re going to have to come up with new ways to tell stories, not just come up with new stories to tell. (143; emphasis added)
Like the Professor, Jane is a wisdom character, one of the book’s in-house prophets. She excels at recognitions, chief among them that the louse she has found preserved in an amber bead has adaptations both for piercing reptile flesh and feeding on feathers. In a Gouldian turn, she finds proof here not just for the existence of feathered dinosaurs, but for the emergence of feathers in multiple instances of a complex biological record. This insight is in many ways a product of her times. New technologies, including the portable cine-camera and GPS “Man Pack” Jane and her reluctant accomplice haul through the forest, create conditions for telling new stories; just as electron microscope studies of Burgess fossils made possible Gould’s insights.
Lest we miss the techno-narrative connection, Jane goes on to lament that she is herself becoming “a dinosaur” – unwittingly echoing a train of thought from the bygone Professor in the previous chapter. Both are estranged from academic peers, hers obsessed by images “made possible by graphics cards in those powerful, new computers – a massive 128K of RAM compared to the 64K of memory in the Eagle moon lander” (143). Jane’s wisdom is not universal, so we can overlook her inaccurate account of 1969 technology: the Eagle computer had 4 kilobytes of RAM, not 64. More important is the larger irony of her reflection. Revelations notwithstanding, narratives of linear progress resist extinction. Jane becomes an institutional fossil even as she finds proof that dinosaurs were never simply overcome and replaced. No doubt to underscore this irony, the cryptozoic terror bird Ywy Mará Ey, which may be an avian dinosaur, makes a teasing appearance at the end of both the Professor’s and Jane’s chapters. Cue Lennon/McCartney: la-la, how the life goes on. Until it doesn’t, of course, but we’ll come to that.
There is wonderful life in the post-Darwinian bush of surprisingly lively ghosts. It haunts the Paraguayan forest at those numinous coordinates 24° 03’ 18:45” S; 55° 23’ 53.60” W, where Jane and the Professor glimpse their strange bird. Elsewhere, in that northern version of America to which Jane must return, the wonder of the age is vested in machines. It is the heyday of digital multimedia, or as an astute critic also called it, “the late age of print” (Bolter, 1). These inferences unveil another challenge of this novel. Is Ascension itself complicit in some linear meta-story of narrative advancement? Does its flirtation with web links and QR codes answer Jane’s call for a “new way to tell stories,” advancing the belatedness of print culture?
Before following that track into the ideological forest, we need to say a few more things about the title of this novel. As noted, “ascension” is an interesting choice. We can probably rule out an astronomical reference to α or “right ascension.” With one very important exception, this novel remains focused on the Earth. As the loftier form of “ascent,” the word implies reversal or fall: Icarian irony. But there is also the resonance of Asunción, the capital of Paraguay where Jane and the Professor begin their journeys. Asunción in English is not “ascension” but “assumption,” which refers in Catholic doctrine to the miracle by which the body of the Virgin Mary is reunited with her soul without the corruption of the grave. This is not to suggest that Ascension is religious roman a clef, but rather to recognize an unusual depth of meaning. Bilingual punning is not unheard of in encyclopedia novels, and it is in line with the deep subtleties of this one. We might generalize “assumption” to any process by which a phenomenal subject (terror bird; human subject; fiction) is integrated into a higher order of being – an approach to transcendence without theological framing, at least in the usual sense. This concept may not be the master key of Ascension, but it unlocks a few doors.
As it happens, Tomasula has some very interesting ideas about how asunción might apply to novels and literature, but to understand them we must first stipulate that Ascension does not really aim at a new kind of storytelling; it excels at the old kind. There are plenty of places to look for innovative approaches to narrative. On the print side, we might consider experiments like Cortázar’s Rayuela, Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves. In the digital realm we could point to Tomasula’s own TOC, a visionary novel re-factored as a tablet app, the ingenious branching fictions of Inkle Studios (e.g., 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault), and the groundbreaking transmedia story PRY. For all its compositional tricks, Ascension remains recognizably a novel. Though numerous, its major characters are compellingly evoked through internal monologue. Despite its encyclopedic and documentary tendencies, the book also contains two fully realized travel narratives, and in the long third chapter, a complex story of institutional intrigue. Ascension is in many respects a traditional undertaking; however, it ultimately raises some hard questions about what “tradition” can mean in our times.
The crux of this matter is “the Book People.” Readers of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will recall the community Guy Montag meets at the end of his flight from state terror, a resistance group whose members each memorize a banned book, against the day when they can be printed again. This scenario comes into Ascension less as a matter of homage or influence than something approaching Ted Nelson’s “transclusion:” the weaving of language from one work, by technical reference, directly into the texture of another (see Nelson). Tomasula’s Book People reside in “W.2,” Ascension’s version of the Metaverse, a virtual environment where people interact via avatars. In a touching subplot of the third chapter, the character Meadow (do not think of The Sopranos) goes on a quest in W.2 seeking the simulated ghost-presence of her son, killed some years earlier in a tsunami. At a key moment in her search, Meadow meets a virtual entity – possibly a person, possibly an algorithmic construct – who tells her the Book People are waiting for her. After a mysterious passage, she arrives at a gathering of avatars whose bodies are rectangular solids.
“Are you the Book People?” [Meadow] tried to remember the science fiction novel that Gabe had at work – with its firemen who burned books, and readers who fled to live as a community of hermits out in the woods, each memorizing a book in the hopes that one day they would be able to return to civilization with the knowledge they had saved from destruction by storing it in their memories. “Like fromFahrenheit 451?” (361)
Gabe is Meadow’s co-worker in a biomedical research lab, an important focal character of the third chapter. An aspiring graphic novelist, she carries a vintage paperback of Bradbury’s book as an identity marker. The transfer of this detail from Gabe’s story to Meadow’s points to a pervasive pattern of resonance that is a basic principle of Ascension. Like many big and sprawling novels, it is threaded through with echoes and correspondences. Almost nothing of importance occurs only once.
Meadow strikes up a conversation with two of the Book People which becomes something less like homage to Bradbury than a stranger brew with notes of L. Frank Baum and Neal Stephenson. Meadow correctly reads the geometry of the Book People, recognizing them as books – no great leap, given the name. Still, her interlocutors are impressed. To a 21st century eye, the shape of a book is not instantly recognizable.
“Most people who stumble upon us think we are boxes.”
“Boxes of breakfast cereal. Or lost birthday presents. The Island of Misfit Toys.”
“You can say that again,” the stout one joked… “I am Remembrance of Things Past, Volume One. And this,” he said, introducing his thin friend, is, in fact, Fahrenheit 451.”
He was the same edition she had seen on Gabe’s desk; coincidence? – no, too much of a coincidence to be one, and she wondered how the system had known what she was thinking. (361)
Here our tasting notes might include a soupçon of Pynchon, as we are dealing here with what Gravity’s Rainbow calls a “Kute Korrespondence,” signature stimulus of information-age paranoia (Pynchon 143). There is more going on here than meets the screen-facing eye. W.2 appears to use something like a simplified virtual reality system, without an advanced, machine-brain interface (or even a headmount). The software has no direct access to Meadow’s memories. If the system seems to know what Meadow is thinking, or what book her co-worker carries in her back pocket, there is something extraordinary at work. Diegetically, we are led to think this is a machinic revolution, massive pattern integration if not emergent artificial intelligence. The system knows Meadow and her co-workers by ingeniously analyzing the traces they leave online. This is a fairly plausible extrapolation of oncoming AI – and on another level, of course, just good, old authorial string-pulling. Cute indeed.
The charm of this passage lies in its vision of convergence between the old kind of authorship and the new machine mind. Beneath the cute correspondence lurks something quite profound. We are no longer in those naïve 1980s, when it was possible to dream of new kinds of narrative. What was dream is now system. We need to think instead about broader and deeper implications of transclusion, a world where the new does not displace the old but instead assumes it into a higher-dimensional assemblage. Meadow’s Proustian guide reveals that the Book People of W.2 all have daily lives in the meat world. Fahrenheit 451 is, but of course, a fireman. (Remains of the Day is a waiter and former English major; apparently, reading English fiction makes you want to work in service.) Remembrance invites Meadow to join the tribe as their appointed reader of scientific literature. At this point, however, the episode takes an odd turn. For some reason the overture to Meadow prompts Farhenheit 451 to recite:
“’Look, cried Montag,’” Fahrenheit declaimed, quoting from himself. “’And the war began and ended in that instant.’” (368)
The war in question is the atomic Armageddon that punctuates Bradbury’s novel. Here is the next bit of that book:
Later, the men around Montag could not say if they had really seen anything. Perhaps the merest flourish of light and motion in the sky. Perhaps the bombs were there, and the jets, ten miles, five miles, one mile up, for the merest instant, like grain thrown over the heavens by a great sowing hand, and the bombs drifting with dreadful swiftness, yet sudden slowness, down upon the morning city they had left behind. The bombardment was to all intents and purposes finished, once the jets had sighted their target, alerted their bombardiers at five thousand miles an hour; as quick as the whisper of a scythe the war was finished. Once the bomb-release was yanked it was over. Now, a full three seconds, all of the time in history, before the bombs struck, the enemy ships themselves were gone half around the visible world, like bullets in which a savage islander might not believe because they were invisible; yet the heart is suddenly shattered, the body falls in separate motions and the blood is astonished to be freed on the air; the brain squanders its few precious memories and, puzzled, dies.
This was not to be believed. It was merely a gesture. Montag saw the flirt of a great metal fist over the far city and he knew the scream of the jets that would follow, would say, after the deed, disintegrate, leave no stone on another, perish. Die. (Bradbury 151)
Though the outburst by Tomasula’s Book Person at first seems a non sequitur, the invocation of apocalypse resonates with the general tone of the third chapter, echoing both the disaster in which Meadow lost her child and the mounting dangers of the Anthropocene. However, Meadow’s first interlocutor, Remembrance of Things Past, pivots the discourse in another direction.
Remembrance paused – frozen mid-gesture as though waiting for the moment to pass – then continued. “Some of us still believe that our perspective can put off the day that Bradbury imagined. Or its many versions. Fire or Ice. In any case, unlike Bradbury’s Book People, our collective knowledge is in use now. Even as we speak,” he wrote, looking up at the sky as though god might be up there listening.
“Like a wiki?”
“More like the multi-lens eye of a fly, each a slightly different view of the world.” (368)
Again: resonance, contrast, irony. Bradbury’s Montag sees atomic bombers overhead, while Tomasula’s Remembrance looks “up” (whatever that means in simulation) to a listening “god,” an implied deus in machina that is not archive or repository (“wiki”) but an actively processing intelligence. This invocation reminds us of a buried resonance in Bradbury’s “Book People”: People of the Book, the Koranic teaching that acknowledges the prophetic writings of Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and others. Literature is never that far from Scripture. Yet as noted, this is a very particular encounter with divinity. The Book People are not biding their time for a messiah, last judgement, or the fall of tyrants. They are “in use now.” Their “collective knowledge” is part of the dynamic process that makes the virtual world. This relationship is assumption, or as Fahrenheit goes on to say:
“…we supply a sense of what the poem means to humans and the program makes us part of itself… the poem is the software running on the wetware of our minds, our judgment becomes the variables of the software; in this way we become the ghost in the machine, if you will. Or, if you won’t, we ensure that a literary perspective will continue for at least as long as there are humans. The human perspective doesn’t lose out to the machine’s database because we are part of it.” (369)
If you care about literature, there is much to relish in this moment. Tomasula replaces Bradbury’s post-Hiroshima angst with a 21st-century vision of integration. We lose Joni Mitchell’s shotgun-riding bombers in favor of Richard Brautigan’s “machines of loving grace” (Brautigan). Embodied in human readers, literature lives within the new machine mind as the way to move beyond the “how” and “what” of the world to the deeper question of “why.” You might be tempted to email this passage to colleagues having conniptions over generative AI.
If only Ascension ended here, but it does not. The Book People are not the last stop on Meadow’s quest, and her story is but one of several major threads in the big third chapter. Tomasula’s redemptive vision of a literary future comes with a fatal catch. The grace of technological assumption depends on another kind of – deeply dubious – assumption: a belief in a human future. The machine dream of the Book People lasts “for at least as long as there are humans.” According to the rest of the third chapter, we shouldn’t hold our breath.
Or maybe we should — Meadow is one of several co-workers in a research lab nominally looking for an immune defense against a respiratory bird virus. (More likely, any vaccine is intended for the military, not the general population.) She has several co-workers, including Silpa and her partner Guy, who has been called up for deployment as a combat medic, and the entomologist Gabe, she of the Bradbury fetish. After Meadow’s encounter with the Book People, we return to Gabe’s continuity.
Gabe’s troubles are many. Her spontaneous protest at an overhyped entertainment, in which she smashes the performer’s speakers, has gone viral, exposing her to possible prosecution, or worse, the insane attentions of the internet. Gabe has also learned that poor precautions in the lab have led to her infection with a supposedly harmless form of malaria. The lab itself is collapsing because, among other things, the principal investigator has committed plagiarism, and unknown to Gabe, another of her colleagues has foolishly released genetically altered bees, setting off a new wave of colony collapse. With all this going on, the book’s late pages do not find Gabe in the best frame of mind:
…the reality of it came down on her hard: the world was ending. Not just for Silpa and Guy but for everyone – the whole planet becoming uninhabitable though everyone continued to live as if it weren’t. They say that Homo sapiens began painting caves as Sistine ceilings of animals when they first noticed a difference between themselves and the animals. Was that where it all began to go wrong? – the first stop out of an Eden of crazy abundance and Technicolor variety of plants and animals being the first step down an ever-narrowing path that would lead to a dead end? You’d think that the cave people who could paint those studied pictures of animals would realize they were getting so good at killing them that they were driving their food supply to extinction. But even early naturalists denied that people had anything to do with the loss of the dodo bird – and every time there was a call to do something – drive less, eat less – people did nothing. Nothing but replace jet strikes over oil with drone strikes over water. Then there was the disaster of 11/9 and RedHatters kneecapped the planet’s last chance…. Now it was too late to do anything. Anything except watch Earth die. (378)
“Too late” is the unvoiced signature of this novel, which sums up a human history rooted in greed, willful ignorance, and abstraction from the natural world. Gabe’s jeremiad runs from the neolithic to “the disaster of 11/9,” which may refer to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords in 2017. Ascension runs the record a few years further into the future. Notably, it elides the Biden administration’s 2020 reversal of the Paris default, though given the precariousness of U.S. politics, the pessimistic edit may be warranted.
The book looks far enough into our likely future to imagine something called “Red Marble Earth.” This is a conflation of two images, one actual and the other (so far) imaginary. The real element is the eponymous Blue Marble shot of our planet as a complete sphere “taken coming back from the Moon,” as Ms. Mitchell sings (first captured by a satellite some years earlier). The fictive element is the photograph of a planet orbiting a distant star, recorded by an array of space telescopes that has been proposed in our world but does not exist outside of fiction. The planet is Earth-like, with a similar distribution of land masses and sea beds, but the colors are wrong, the familiar blue, white and brown replaced by shades of pink and red. Presumably this is not an artefact of the imaging process, but the actual color of the planet, which has become incandescently hot. The planet is surrounded by a halo of gases as its atmosphere boils into space. This dire astronomical discovery bleeds into culture:
We cover the earth. The logo of a paint factory showed a cosmic-sized can pouring red paint onto the Earth, oceans of red paint dripping into space. After an exo-planet that was losing its atmosphere was shown to look like Blue Marble Earth – only red, like a red-hot marble – some [designer from the Neon Green movement] took the We Cover the Earth logo and turned it upside down, its red drips now streaming off the planet the way the atmosphere streamed away from Red Marble Earth, as they called it. It became a meme. (274)
The meme inspires a signature tattoo for supporters of “Neon Green,” the militant environmental movement in this near future. However, though the image is hugely important, Tomasula does not include either the telescope image or the modified logo in his many illustrations. Omission of the inverted Sherwin-Williams logo is understandable: detournement of a registered trademark invites litigation. Not producing the telescope shot of Red Marble Earth is a bit more puzzling. AI image generation seems ideally suited to this assignment. There may be good reasons for these lacunae, though. For one thing, Tomasula’s transmediations always point to the actual world, so a manufactured image would break the book’s creative rules. Further, the non-appearing images gain force because of their absence. Red Marble Earth burns into the imagination, summarizing and symbolizing the novel’s dire outlook. We are told that the death of that distant planet — many years in the past given the speed of light — shows the future of our own. Encyclopedic, synecdochal fictions train the mind to interpolate and extrapolate. We infer what isn’t shown. This principle might apply to Tomasula’s Book People just as it does the Red Marble. We never meet Heart of Darkness among the avatars, but it is not hard to guess what line that Book Person would deliver. Kurtz’s injunction, “exterminate all the brutes,”has become a planetary imperative.
The hard eco-pessimism of Ascension puts the passing fantasy of Meadow and the Book People into sad relief. Gabe is another wisdom character, revealer of the novel’s core truth: it is too late. Clever monkeys have built machines of loving grace that can encode their dreams and stories — for a few more years until the ecosystem is shattered in planetary catastrophe, in which case the machines stop, and so much for love or grace. Ascension-as-assumption is a simulacrum, or a fairy tale for doomed children. The Book People are the books at humanity’s wake.
Which brings us to the ending, with due caution for spoiling. Significantly, the novel turns back to Meadow’s story for the final installment. After leaving the Book People she travels on to another fantastic scene, Elysian fields, a site populated by avatars of the dead, including her lost son Niko. Meadow’s spirit guide, whom she calls the Gardener, apologizes: “The apocalypse isn’t what it used to be” (389). Yet however changed or degraded, this is still a vision of last things, and thus no doubt a revelation. “Is our world ending?” Meadow asks the Gardener. He answers yes, but returns a question: “When has it not been?”
Tomasula finishes Ascension with a tricky piece of writing in which Meadow’s reflections are interlaced with various lines of poetry. The novel and its world end not in fire or ice, but verse. Some of the lines come from “Of Being Numerous,” a 1968 poem by George Oppen. Meadow’s bookish ex-husband was fond of the poem and used to quote it to her. Stanza 38 of that poem provides the borrowed text. It reads:
You are the last
Who will know him
Not know him,
He is an old man,
How could one know him?
You are the last
Who will see him
Or touch him,
In his endnotes, Tomasula says the final poem is “after” Oppen, not verbatim (397). Interestingly, the version of these lines in Ascension shifts the patient’s pronoun from him to her. We can only speculate about this change. Mourning a dying Mother Earth seems a bit jejune. Perhaps the patient stands for the human species, personified as the females we all are as embryos. Or maybe Meadow herself has somehow become the terminal subject as we near the end. In any case, we proceed from the quoted lines into fragments of memory and reflection, coming to a recognition: “She knew the city referred to in the poem” (393). However, “the poem” that follows is no longer Oppen’s, but possibly an original work. Tomasula’s notes refer to “a compost of online sources and events too numerous to list” (397).
You forget the changes after a while
Sea walls instead of fortress walls, giant offshore turbines
bring the horizon close
Unbelievable, at first
as the collapse of mountains
A monument rises,
crowned by a gilt figure
The Genius of Our Species
People love to go out and look at it towards sundown
when it catches the dying light
Dazzling, like an artificial star
This is again a vision of the oncoming future (“the changes”), a city surrounded by sea walls to fend off the rising ocean, flanked by windmills. The “monument” erected here to catch the “dying light” is “The Genius of Our Species,” a kind of Sphinx perhaps, looking back at the city with that quintessential human disposition, curiosity. Indeed, the book ends on a literally curious note. The last words belong to Meadow:
Then, after a moment she asked, “So what was all that about?” (394)
There is a running bit in Ascension in which a character responds to a statement by saying “it depends what you mean by [X].” In this case, interpretation hinges on what we mean by “that.” The pronoun could refer to Meadow’s revelatory experience in W.2, but in the larger context we might point outward in ascending scales of inquiry: to this novel; to the larger enterprise of prose fiction; to human culture and history. What was that all about? Or to return to more manageable scope, what is this book all about? Why do we still write and read novels? Setting aside the sweet possibilities of assumption, Ascension would appear to concern itself with death, loss, extinction – and the Kubler-Rossian final stage of acceptance. Extinction is a thing Earth does on a regular basis, five times in the geological record. Round six has demonstrably begun. This is the last thing we should understand, the end of our inquiries. In this analysis, it is hard not to read Ascension as anything but ars moriendi. We are going out, so let’s do it well, raising a final monument to our curious species.
Is this what we can or should expect from serious fiction in the ever-later Anthropocene? Perhaps. It is worth remembering, though, that there is at least one catch or loophole in Tomasula’s otherwise dreadful diagnosis: the Red Marble for the moment remains fiction. By all means, we should take that imaginary portent very seriously, especially as it provides a way to think about the inflamed but still blue Earth we anxiously inhabit. However, we can still draw the veil of the imaginary over at least that aspect of Tomasula’s apocalypse. We have not seen the Red Marble. Whether this constitutes optimism or denial seems open to debate.
When I learned to read seriously, I was taught that all serious reading is misreading. We find in books and poems what we need to find, sometimes at odds with what was written. In that spirit I will suggest a willful re-routing, if not outright misprision, of Ascension. Having read the last word, turn back from Meadow’s question to the first page of the book, where you will find these words, floating on a field of stars:
have to happen
this way (or at all) the way we say
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