Penguin £7.99

Journey Into Space, By Toby Litt

4.00

When I was a child, I had a nightmare about space; nothing I've ever read or seen since has recaptured the pitiless immensity of it. Until this novel. In the not-too-distant future, a spaceship is journeying through deep space carrying 100 would-be colonists – or rather, the ancestors of would-be colonists – for the voyage to the destined planet will take generations.

Set against the endless emptiness is the claustrophobic world of the ship. As the light years pass by, communication with Earth gets more infrequent, and more out of phase, and the news from the home planet gets worse. The onboard computer holds almost the entire store of human knowledge; with its help, the children of the colonists become obsessed by animals, plants, landscapes, climates or cultures that they will never see.

Litt expertly lays out the relationships, the hierarchies, the changing rules and orthodoxies, in short the entire sociology of this hermetically enclosed community over the duration of the voyage – sometimes in close-up, sometimes with a godlike distance that enables him to say "Over the course of several years ...". The result is a fascinating exploration of how communities develop over time.

The large time sweep and detached authorial voice are reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon's 1930 sci-fi classic Last and First Men. But Stapledon's book neglected the personal, while Litt writes about living breathing characters with the human emotions of love and hope and despair and curiosity and ambition. An extended descriptive passage detailing climatic and geological change, which turns out to be an allegory for the conception and birth of a child, is virtuoso writing – if a little taxing for the reader. Litt is an unfailingly inventive writer, and this is a welcome addition to his oeuvre.

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