It begins with an appeal for six boys and six girls aged between sixteen and nineteen to participate in speed dating over an extended period as part of the Genesis Program, funded by the advertising revenues from “the greatest television show in history,” as on board the Cupido they head towards Mars where, their choices of ideal partner having been made, they will descend to the surface to be married and set about creating a colony founded on six happy couples in their pressure dome “love nests.”
Published in Victor Dixen’s native France in 2018, Ascension is the first novel of his Phobos trilogy, now translated into English and to be followed by Distortion this October and Collision next March, concluding Dixen’s third series of young adult fiction, and while the opening pitch is as ghastly as it sounds, that is perhaps intentional as it is a marketing pitch aimed at the “pretty girls and handsome boys” eligible to apply.
And out of the eighty million applicants, the lucky six girls are Medical Officer Léonor from France, Biology Officer Kirsten from Germany, Engineering Officer Elizabeth from the United Kingdom, Planetology Officer Fangfang from Singapore, Communications Officer Safia from India and Navigation Officer Kelly from Canada and their dog Louve.
Launched simultaneously but separately and quartered apart aboard the Cupido are Engineering Officer Tao from China, Medical Officer Alexei from Russia, Communications Officer Kenji from Japan, Navigation Officer Mozart from Brazil, Biology Officer Samson from Nigeria and Planetology Officer Marcus from the United States of America with their dog Warden.
Masterminding the project is Professor Serena McBee, but as in any reality programming what is broadcast to the viewers is far from the gently guided blush of first loves, each of the candidates competing to be most popular as reflected in the audience’s pledges towards their dowries which will secure the best survival gear and most resources on Mars, each of them orphans with no immediate family and concealing a secret.
If the premise of the expedition is contrived to maximise inefficiency and the risk of catastrophic failure, it should be kept in mind that the Genesis Program is not governed by scientific expertise but by a private firm as a marketing exercise to generate profit and as such the science in the fiction is light, the one thing explained at length the light speed communication lag as though quoted from first principals from a textbook.
The prose as glossy and superficial as the characters with their sponsored clothes and makeup, a young adult novel is not going to compete with the vision or technical insight of Arthur C Clarke or Kim Stanley Robinson, but even accepting such the premise is flimsy: what if they all choose the same boy or girl? What if they all choose someone other than who chooses them? Why is this first relationship supposed to define their entire subsequent lives?
This could be overlooked if the plot were fast moving and subtle, but with foreshadowing tantamount to a silent movie villain twirling their moustache before a projected intertitle proclaims “I am evil and not to be trusted” and exposition delivered by mission experts to colleagues as if they had not studied the same subjects even when in clandestine meetings discussing subterfuge, Dixen’s writing is amateur even by the standards of his genre.
Despite this prevalent clumsiness, the characters do eventually find their voices but it is uncertain who the target audience are as those entranced by the vapid and exploitative Love Island and its ilk not usually keen readers of science fiction though they would perhaps be the ones most likely to overlook that with the whole premise playing to bias and favouritism the colony will be built on an inherently unstable foundation, nor for those more versed in the subject is there an indication that Dixen is satirising the Mars One project.
It’s insane, it’s ridiculous, and within the novel it’s televised across the world to billions of eager viewers but the tolerance of the reader for the near five hundred pages of Ascension will be directly related to their fondness for the company of naive teenagers with their volatile feelings which swing like pendulums at the slightest whim or perceived slight from or shortcoming in the object of their tenuous affections.