Monday, September 20, 2010

Stephen Baxter - "Ark"

I read this for Science Fiction book club. It is the sequel to Flood, the book in which the world is drowned (over the course of several decades) by water erupting out from subterranaean reservoirs. Or it is kind of a sequel – Ark begins before the other book ends, though it goes on for decades afterwards. Each book could be read independently of the other, more or less.

In Flood the narrative followed quite a few characters and jumped around the world. With this one, though, things are a bit more focussed. The main thrust is on these youngsters being trained up to take part in a spaceflight that should hopefully allow enough humans to escape the drowning world to ensure the survival of our species. These people – the candidates – live largely in a bubble of privilege and comfort as the rising sea levels cause the wider world to go to shit. We get occasional glimpses of that wider world through the eyes of people guarding the space programme's facilities from people trying to flee the rising waters. Like with the first book, Baxter seems very adept at painting a grim picture of a world falling apart. Maybe because of the more precise geographical focus (pretty much all of the earthbound stuff takes place in Colorado), the effect is maybe even more disturbing than in Flood - the book communicates a vivid sense of the horror of the endless retreat from the rising waters and the loss of human decency that this brings with it.

The second half of the book follows the spaceship (called, amazingly, Ark) after its launch into space. Because near future humans have handily managed to develop a warp drive, it is able to travel to the stars in less than centuries, but it still ends up taking decades to get anywhere interesting. And of course a relatively small group of people on a cramped spacecraft is a perfect recipe for an unpleasant hothouse of human emotions, with things getting almost a bit Batavia's Graveyard at one point.

I think maybe the earthbound stuff was the best part of the book, but the space travel stuff still cracks along. The dysfunctional internal politics of the space crew is rather fascinating, but it might have been more interesting if the characters were better drawn. Like a lot of SF writers, Baxter seems more comfortable with the sciencey stuff than in convincing characterisation, and it does seem like the deterioration of one character in particular into a monster is a bit two-dimensional.

Purely as a matter of taste, I found the use of a predatory paedophile as a plot device in the first half of the book a bit distasteful – more for somewhat over-graphic description of a nonce-crime episode. It could just be me, but maybe this is one situation where tell is better than show.

As with Flood, I am a bit ambivalent as to whether Ark is *that* good, but there is no denying the effect Baxter's description of the drowning world has been – I have been having intermittent nightmares about floods since I started reading these works. I suppose that counts as a result.

And in case you are wondering what our next SF book club is, then wonder no more – it is Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I look forward to seeing whether Heinlein is as bad as his reputation suggests. Join us in the ILAC Library on the second Tuesday of October to discuss it.

image source

you could click here to help victims of flooding in Pakistan

An inuit panda production


Ray said...

I think Stranger in a strange Land is one of those books that teenagers will love, but might annoy older readers. It didn't make that much of an impression on me, but it seemed to be in the same vein as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance/ The Diceman/ Atlas Shrugged - these lectures will BLOW YOUR MIND!
or not.

rener said...

I'm just a few pages in to SIASL, and I'm already thinking it's rubbish. Not a good start.