Friday, April 27, 2012

100 Books #35 - Stephen Baxter's ARK

Two separate-but-similar science fiction universes came unavoidably to mind* as I read Ark, the sequel to Stephen Baxter's world-submerging Flood, which I hated enjoying last year. Those two universes are those of Battlestar Galactica (the 21st century version mostly) and of Greg Bear's Forge of God/Anvil of Stars duo. Which is to say that we're firmly in ragtag-band-of-survivors-in-space territory here.

But whereas in Forge/Anvil, bad aliens destroy the earth and good aliens turn a new generation of earthlings loose among the stars to seek revenge, and in Battlestar Galactica some of humanity's own children/creations destroy the home planets and relentlessly hunt down the survivors, Flood/Ark has no bad guys but ourselves. The first book stopped short of entirely blaming the catastrophe that turned Earth into Waterworld on humanity, but left the possibility open that it might indeed be our fault;  in Ark a small crew is sent with embryos and seeds and a lot of computer data to try to do what we ought already to have done without having had our home planet kick us off it: establish human colonies among the stars. And misbehave out there.

So the disaster porn Baxter of Evolution and, yes, Flood, takes a back seat to the mind-boggling traveler of spacetime Baxter of his Manifold series. But this time, instead of an enhanced cephalopod exploring the universe, it's people.

Which is kind of awesome. Even though Baxter still manages to make it depressing and kind of icky. Because first he has to detail (some more) the squalor of the people displaced by the floods on earth, the better to contrast them with the cosseted, though limited, existence of (most of) our future colonists, and then, so he can have a suitably crazy crew member causing problems on the light-year-spanning journey of Project Nimrod, he has to crank the ick factor to 11 by having one of the Candidates' tutors turn out to be a messed-up pedophile, the better to psychically scar the future Adams and Eves of the new frontier.

I found this profoundly unnecessary; as Baxter more than amply conveyed in the third or so of the novel dealing with the actual journey from Earth to the stars, a small crew, however carefully chosen and groomed, trapped in a giant tin can for years on end will supply its own drama very well, thank  you. There are power struggles, technical problems, reactions to the general freakiness of being on a one-way trip through outer space, and the weirdness of children growing up in microgravity (their parents already being pretty weird, having never known Earth to be anything but a flooded world of refugees and damp thuggery) with no concept of sky or sea or ground. This is all good stuff, the best part of the novel, and I would not have complained had it been the whole of the novel, but, well, it wasn't.

Less satisfying, for instance, is a contrived return to post-flood Earth, an interlude that comes off as a sour homage to J.G. Ballard's Drowned World, complete with weird fugue states and melancholy, damp daydreams. And then there are the Philip K. Dick knock-off head-game discussions of whether the life endured by those still in space is real. Maybe they're all just trapped in a malign simulation. Or still training for the real trip, and failing at their training.


Meanwhile, huge gaps of time go by on the ship, including one leap of at least sixteen years. It's like watching a soap opera; babies are born and are nubile and raising hell in the very next scene. Argh!

Still, this book, like all of Baxter's bleak, bleak monstrosities, is worth reading. When he backs off and lets his characters be themselves, which he does just often enough to keep the reader hooked, he winds up making some interesting observations about how mutable we are, as a species and as individuals, how fragile our civilization is, and how strange we can get when circumstances permit -- or force it. And here he has done something he hasn't before, a bit, for he shows both what can happen if we let go of what we've made and built and let ourselves mutate and devolve along with our planet and what can if we cling to our achievements and try to take them further. The choice, he seems bent on reminding us, is ours.

He's just pretty sure that it's the alpha jerks who are going to get to do the decision-making. And that they'll make the wrong choices.

I never like what Baxter foresees, but I always, for a while, believe it. And I treasure what I have, appreciate the present, all the more for that.

*Well, maybe another one, too, though I don't suppose Lord of the Flies counts for most people as science fiction.

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