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Calypso by Oliver K Langmead

28/05/2024
Calypso by Oliver K Langmead

Just when you think you have come across every possible version and trope of the generation-ship (taking hundreds of years to take colonists to a new planet) subgenre of science fiction, along comes a book like Calypso by Oliver K Langmead to shake things up. Written as a series of differently styled epic poems, Calypso not only tells a fascinating story but raises some deep philosophical issues about the potential ethics of generational space travel and colonisation.

Calypso opens with the names of four characters – Rochelle, Catherine, Sigmund and The Herald. Each has a very different role in the narrative and a different poetic form. The main narrative is told by Rochelle. Employed by Sigmund for the journey on the Calypso specifically to question his decisions, she has left her young family behind to be part of this one-way multigenerational experiment. Rochelle awakens from a centuries-long sleep to find that the Calypso has arrived at its destination:

 All those curved lines the navigators drew
Through stars and centuries brought us to this,
So that we, reawakened may look down
Upon the face of this barren new world.

But Rochelle finds that her fellow engineers have all been awakened some time before and have disappeared. The only three remaining are herself, Sigmund and Catherine, a bioengineer with very specific talents. The ship itself is being run by a highly structured neo-primitive society led by a figure in white who calls himself The Herald. These are the crew, who over many generations have been ensuring the ship continues to function and tending to thousands of sleeping colonists:

The colony does not look like one
There are rows of cryogenic cradles;
Bulging frozen sacs hanging like pupae
Between humming machines sustaining them …
   The colony is all mermaids purses
With foetal human silhouettes inside
Each a new person ready to be born;
Ready to inhabit the world we build.

Rochelle quickly finds that there was a schism in the distant past between different factions of the crew, the effects of which are still being felt across the ship.

To say much more about Calypso would be to spoil some of the fascinating, thought-provoking and surprising roads it goes down. It opens with some puzzles but, as it solves them, opens out the ethical and philosophical conundrums underpinning them. And beneath it all is the question of whether we can leave our basic humanity behind. What is the psychological and social baggage that humans carry with them? Is it possible to start again with a clean slate?

Central to this consideration is the character of Arthur Sigmund, whose story is told in flashbacks. It is the tale of a young man who as he grows sees the problems of mankind and comes up with a unique solution:

Observe keenly the young man called Arthur Sigmund
Who has stopped on the moon on his way back to Earth …

As Arthur watches, the Earth breaks the horizon,
A crescent so bright it streaks across his vision.
From here, it is blue and white and green and so small
Arthur was expecting the Earth to seem mighty
But instead it appears to be very fragile:
A spherical ornament made of such thin glass
That he could shatter it with a careless gesture.

This history, and the philosophy driving Sigmund’s plan, informs the way the story plays out in its final few sections.

While all four of the poetic registers are different, probably the most bravura section is The Herald’s retelling of the voyage of the Calypso – and the internecine battle that took place halfway through its centuries-long voyage – as an epic poem:

The    expanse   a   vibrant   void
bejewelled  Aglitter with radiant
stars       afire        Was       sweet
Calypso’s   celestial   sea   Bright
With     heavenly    beacons    to
guide     her     So     small      she
spun      in     interstellar     space

Although close behind is the section that describes Catherine’s terraforming of the new planet using technology built into her body. All of Catherine’s sections are told in text that creates different patterns on the page:

…. we catalyse the island
the river blooms green and purple, flecks caught up in the wind
around our feet grasses rise, slicing our skin, drawing our fertile blood
which blossoms into flowers around us, winding themselves around our ankles
trees gushing upwards, gushing towards the sky so quick they twist, crackle creak
all that was dark and cold and wet now green but not just green, white and yellow and red

In a genre awash with authors recycling the same ideas, it is increasingly rare to come across something that takes this subject matter and makes it so wholly new. Langmead gives readers another way to look at the tropes and ideas inherent in the concept of multigenerational journeys to colonise distant stars. Calypso surprises not just in its form but in its approach to the ethical, moral and social issues bound up in this kind of endeavour.

This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.

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