Monday, April 29, 2024

Review: Calypso by Oliver K. Langmead

This awe-inspiring and utterly beautiful novel told in verse will make you think, feel, and wonder why there aren't more contemporary authors writing sci-fi that is both full of ideas and jaw-droppingly well written. 

Remember that scene in Contact (1997) when Ellie Arroway, confronted with the vast immensity and beauty of our far-reaching universe, can only utter "...they should have sent a poet"? 

She was right. 

Oliver K. Langmead in Calypso tells a story spanning centuries and light years  entirely in verse  about humanity in space, and all of the triumphs, travails, and emotions generated in the process. 

Having spent the past five years working my way through all of the Hugo Award-winning novels, the most common refrain I and my podcast co-hosts have is "fantastic idea and world-building but absolutely lackluster writing." Calypso is the first work of science fiction in years to make me feel something for all the characters while simultaneously providing a fleshed-out world and mythology full of interesting science fiction ideas.

The story

The Calypso is a generation ship headed across the galaxy to build and colonize a distant planet, and Rochelle, an engineer, agrees to leave her family behind forever to travel through the centuries in cryosleep so she can assist in the momentous task of building a new society. She wakes up and nothing is at it should be, as it appears there's been a revolt at some point during the long time interval between the botanists and engineers.

We learn slowly about the revolt and what caused it  namely the absolutely understandable human impulse to not want to live and procreate entirely within a cramped and lifeless starship while generations down the line get to benefit from the beauty and sustenance of an actual planet.  This is an idea I've thought about every single time I've read a book  or even played a video game like Fallout — that requires multiple generations to put in the work of keeping humanity going while knowing they'll never get to experience the end result. I'm not sure it would ever work, honestly.

We also slowly unravel the true nature of the voyage. Sigmund, the project's brilliant director, wants to give humans a chance at building a society on a new planet completely devoid of human history. In this universe, people have populated other planets in our own neighborhood, and he bemoans that Venus is just another Earth, "the worst of humanity / Slowly being spread across the solar system." He describes in an emotional gut punch the homeless population that lives on Mars, and it's then that you're forced to think, "Damn, maybe we shouldn't be sending humans off Earth after all. But instead, he imagines that:

It would be a truly epic 


To engineer a new world

and colonise it

With blank humans un-

aware of the heritage.

The words

Despite my time in poetry creative writing classes in college 20 years ago, I've not kept up much with published verse. But this novel is enjoyable regardless of whether one has a background in poetry. It's not stilted or filled with overly cutesy rhymes, despite it's impressively consistent pentameter (10 syllables for each phrase).

These words tell the story succinctly and with incredible turns of imagistic phrasing. Rochelle, when describing a walk in the woods, states "And I crunch across a kingdom / Nothing like my childhood's imaginings." It is a place where "our knuckles and knees were the knots of trees." Despite the fact that the book spends much of its time in a cold and sterile spaceship, there are highly vivid  concentrations of life both within it (in the form of on-board gardens) and on the new planet as it's slowly terraformed into a place suitable for life. 

There's even a section entirely describing the transformation from barren rock all the way to multi-celled life, the imaginative verse roiling and building much like the world does over eons. The verdant descriptions are teeming with life in an almost unsettling way, much like the prose of Jeff VanderMeer in the Southern Reach trilogy. 

Reading Calypso, one also sees the influence of Anne Carson, a famed poet known for her prose novels like Autobiography of Red. Both reveal startlingly human depictions of feelings and relationships set amidst unusual backdrops, whether outer space or a retelling of an ancient myth. 

The effect

Immediately after finishing Calypso, I wanted to restart it. I enjoyed the story and the words throughout the first read, but now having learned the narrative (which honestly I sort of rushed through because of how compulsively readable it is), my desire was to go back and savor the words. I feel the same way about Moby Dick, I just want to get lost in the language time and time again. Highly recommended.


The Math

Baseline Score: 9/10

Bonuses: Incredible language, imaginative storytelling, and a very human voice that's rarely polished and focused in sci-fi

Penalties: The format will undoubtedly scare off some potential readers, and the more experimental sections (like when words are arranged in visual depictions across the page) can be hard to follow for even a poetry aficionado.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.