In Ethan Chatagnier’s “Singer Distance,” released Oct. 18, history is rewritten on an astronomical scale: It’s 1960 and Mars is thrumming with life but frustratingly unreachable. The planet has been uncommunicative for the past three decades after Earth’s failure to decode its last mathematical message, but Crystal Singer, an MIT graduate student, believes she’s cracked the code. Rick, her boyfriend, believes it too, and will stop at nothing to prove it. But when Crystal disappears after the road trip that brings her to the precipice of the experiment, his life is inexorably altered in her absence. In an alternate timeline roaring with both possibility and severance, Chatagnier’s debut novel is radiant with curiosity and aflame with ambition.
Enigmatic, inaccessible and blazingly intelligent, Crystal’s tether to Earth is a tenuous one carved by the double-edged sword of genius. Through Rick’s narration, she sometimes feels so out of reach that she fails to inhabit the believability of a real person — though, ostensibly, that’s the point. With their flighty connection forming the nexus of the novel’s foraging storyline, “Singer Distance” navigates the fine line between separation and closeness with heartrending honesty.
Chatagnier’s writing, rendered with reflective and evocative vitality, scintillates starlike on the page. For a science fiction novel so rooted in the groundedness of its mathematical particulars, it’s also enamored with forging prosaic beauty. Though the plot of “Singer Distance” often relies on established astronomical theories, Chatagnier is careful to avoid devolving to the humdrum of textbook definitions. Made accessible through lively analogy, the book’s scientific explanations feel marked with an animated, riveting weight — entropy is a Lincoln Log cabin, space-time is the sea.
The novel’s decision to swerve away from esoteric scientific technicalities in favor of lyrical ponderings triumphs, especially when it tenderly interrogates themes of love, connection and the act of finding sense in a seemingly unfathomable physical world. Much of Rick and Crystal’s written correspondence involves a desperate search for poetry within a universe seared by the language of math — a testimony that vouches for passion and aesthetic over sterile reason. Incandescent with its marriage of the technical and the rhapsodic, the book’s driving factor is not its scientific integrity but rather its focalization of humanity.
Yet, for all of its cosmic imagination and otherworldly perception, “Singer Distance” is still reluctant to depart from clichés. It’s almost predictably visionary, incorporating alien communication à la Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and family-tinged sci-fi in the vein of “Interstellar.” The ever-symbolic motif of distance, carved through desert-ingrained road trips and Rick’s blistering search for a lost love, feels like a “Paper Towns” variant embedded with academic ruminations and speculation-driven temerity. Its characters, written with an archetypal streak that divests the novel of dimensional pathos, dissolve against the more compelling tangibility of Chatagnier’s scientific metaphors. Even the novel’s ostensible plot twist reads more like a trite, overly saccharine treat than a luminous departing sentiment.
The novel’s tendency to time-jump, too, inclines more toward an undelivered attempt at concocting complexity than an innovative storytelling technique. At times distracting and at others bewildering, Chatagnier flits from present to flashback with reeling frequency, prompting the reader to become attuned to the specific cues of each temporal shift. Though colored in the thoughtfulness of Rick’s retrospection, his perspective hits a snag when it loses its momentum, reveals its cards too soon and spills information it can’t mop up.
Regardless of its drawbacks, “Singer Distance” boasts an unflappable magnetism in its candid explorations of humanity and the relationships it forges. Injected with a wonder that verges on idealism, but perfectly encapsulates the rapture of yearning, the novel is poignant and exultant all at once — a sci-fi tour de force that aches as much as it enthralls.