Toby Litt’s latest work of fiction seems initially to be an attempt to prove that a single clever idea is a sufficient structural framework for a novel. The narrative takes place on a giant spaceship, launched on an interplanetary journey some time before page one by a humankind in search of a new home. Equipped with the most advanced propulsion technology available, the Armenia has a top speed still a mere twentieth of the speed of light – a cripplingly slow gait when faced with the vast expanses of interstellar space.
When Litt takes the helm, the ship is still less than halfway to the promising planet of its destination, and only one of the first generation of travellers remains alive: Mrs Woods, an ancient crone whose space cabin smells mysteriously of almonds. The remainder of the crew’s characters have been born in space and are doomed to die there, for the Armenia will not make landfall until long after their lifespans are over.
As structural conceits go, the great ship hurtling painfully slowly through the heavens is a strong one, if not desperately original. The Armenia grants Litt an incubator to deal with big questions that might be harder to grapple with in a less confined space, notably the role of human governance and the inevitability of evil. Yet, initially, he focuses solely on August and Celeste, a pair of teenage born-on-boarders equipped with both rare beauty and a hatred for their claustrophobic existence. Their favourite pastime is “describing”, conjuring up poignant word-pictures of things they have never experienced in their on-board lives, in particular earth weather.
These “wordstorms”, as Litt cunningly coins them, are a potent device – they indicate the pair’s deep yearnings for a reality more visceral than their own, at the same time acting as a wry piece of metafictional one-upmanship. That August and Celeste can experience the sensualities of wind and rain through verbal description only, and yet can also be utterly entranced by those same words, both mirrors and supports Litt’s own activity as a writer.
Nonetheless the describings do drag on, even when the wordstorm is singular – a whispered, conspiratorial “sleet” – or spiced with sex, as when the youngsters take an illicit shower together to simulate the feel of rain. Here and elsewhere, Litt has a tendency to overindulge his conceptual imagination when a willingness to curb it earlier might have created a tighter result. This failing is most pronounced later on, when August and Celeste make love in a long passage fraught with metaphors of planetary destruction that falls well short of its Miltonian allusions.
Still, the reason Journey Into Space succeeds is that its author has such a plethora of good ideas to work with that he can get away with overextending a few. Just as the initial scenario on board the Armenia begins to pale, distant Planet Earth is destroyed, turning the ship into an efficient test-bed for another raft of experiments in social thought. The crew, as the last men, adopt the role of the first, dismantling the hierarchy of captain and “astrogation officer” in favour of an absolute monarch, and deifying an old lady despite her best efforts to dissuade them. Litt’s imagination clearly has galactic dimensions, and by plundering these resources he keeps his book driving forward, even when his spaceship turns around and heads for the wreckage of home.
Of course, in so doing, he disproves the initial idea Journey Into Space seems keen to advance, that a single plot conceit is scaffolding enough for a book-length fiction. Still, although Litt dismantles his apparent thesis and maintains momentum by constantly buttressing his plot container with new material, he does so suavely enough to suggest that his novel would not have been more successful as a short story.