Monday, 28 September 2009

Stephen Baxter, Ark (2009)

‘We never even read any books—no books that counted … I liked historicals, tales of a vanished past . You liked old science fiction about vanished futures. We never engaged with the world as it was unfolding around us, not even through fiction.’
‘Nobody was writing novels about the flood,’ Venus pointed out. [Ark, 427]
This space-Noahic tale is the second part of Baxter global-disaster-and-aftermath diptych. Ironically enough, I read Flood, the first of the two books, in an ARC! Read into that what you will. (I read Ark in, uh, a regular copy).

In Flood the world flooded; in Ark a small group are trained to ride a spaceship to another world to try and start again. There’s a hand-wavey ‘warp drive’ technology at work which reduces the journey time to ‘only’ a decade or so (really quite a pronouncedly hand-wavey warp technology, actually: its dynamics are explained whilst a positively HRH-the-Queen quantity of hand-waving goes on).** I take it Baxter considered the warp needful for dramatic reasons—to keep the voyage time plausibly within the lifetimes of the main characters, and to stop him simply rewriting his superb generation-starship novella Mayflower II. And a decade cooped up in two small linked hulls is plenty of time for things to get claustrophobic, strife-riven and dangerous. That this small crew is the last chance for humanity—save, of course, the raft-living humans left behind on Earth 1 whose children are gradually evolving into merpeople—stacks up the tension.

You know the sorts of books Baxter writes, and this is paradigmatically one of those books. I don’t say that to be dismissive. On the contrary, my experience reading Ark was in a nutshell: ‘damn, he’s good at this.’ One writer can hardly say that of another without it being tinged with envy, and I’d better ’fess up to that, as well as do the full-disclosure things and note that Baxter is a friend of mine. But Flood and Ark together are going to be remembered as two of his very best novels. You should read them both. You could certainly get by just reading this one. But why would you want to 'get by'?

Ark is immensely, addictively readable, because not despite the fact that it is also relentlessly claustrophobic—something Baxter captures brilliantly. The claustrophobia is tinged with awe. Like Flood, Ark is written in a fairly plain, declarative prose that isn’t shy of occasionally dumping info; but that’s exactly the right style for this closed-down, fact-determined mis-en-scène. There’s one crucial contrast with Flood: in that novel it was clear how things were going to end from pretty early on; and indeed, that novel generated a good deal of its potency and momentum precisely from that sense of tragic inevitability. Ark is a much more open-ended novel. I genuinely did not know where the story was headed, and I read up impatiently to find out. Would the gamble pay off, or would Baxter-as-author give us one of his bleakly unillusioned, Cosmos of the Doleful Countenance stories?

His more throwaway ‘entertainments’ aside, Graham Greene’s novels were all about (to quote the phrase from Brighton Rock) ‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.’ Replace ‘God’ with ‘Necessity’, and you come close to what this novel is doing. Baxter flirts with religion in many of his books; and the imaginative construction here is tinged with Catholicism—monastic seclusion, a reduplicated plot-development that elaborates priest-like sexual abuse of children. But the universe of Ark is a godless place, a fact one character reinforces by quoting Seneca, no less: ‘Go on through through the lofty spaces of high heaven and bear witness, where thou ridest, that there are no gods’ [426]. That’s the Medea, and although Baxter feels the need to inoculate his non-poseur text against the allusion (‘Holle said, “You always were pretentious, Venus”’) it’s very much to the point.

The novel is on a nuts-and-bolts level about the practical problems of building, flying and maintaining a space-ark; but on a human level it’s mostly about adults and children in a Medean sense—which is to say, about the violence adults do to children for their own, crazy reasons. ‘The ontological survival of the human race is at stake’ takes, in this novel, its place on a level with ‘my dick is hard and I am randy’, ‘I had problems with my own parents, you know’ and ‘I am schizophrenic’ as essentially bullshit reasons for adults to hurt children, and it is very much to the credit of the whole that this never feels crass or exploitative. Necessity dictates the exploitation, and Necessity cannot be argued with or nagged down. In the idiom children comprehend: it’s not fair. But one strength of this novel is its profound understanding that the universe is in crucial ways not fair—or perhaps it would be better to say: it is not interested in human conceptions of fairness. Survival is the criterion, not justice. As Holle says late in proceedings: ‘there’s nothing remotely fair about any of this’ [441]. Nevertheless, Ark is not a bitter novel; in a way its Mosaic conclusion is surprisingly hopeful.

There are a couple of wrinkles, or so I thought. The novel takes 150 pages to get the Ark launched, and there’s a slight sense that the text doesn’t trust its core narrative line to keep readers interested: so a murder mystery plot is tossed awkwardly into the mix (I found it particularly unbelievable that the authorities would delegate the investigation of this mystery to Grace, a strange in from the chaos outside, as a way of her proving herself worthy of a place on the Ark.) The book does not shirk, but neither does it exactly address, the fundamental illogic of the mission—the rank unlikelihood of finding any alien planet with 15-20% oxygen in its atmosphere and edible flora; which is to say, of finding any world as suitable to human life as the admittedly-inundated-but-nonetheless-comparatively-hospitable Earth I. Then there’s the core science of the spacetravel itself. Re: that, here’s my double asterisk again.** It’s just like the one at the top of this post in that it links to a footnote below. You might want to read that note if you didn't before. Or not. It's up to you.

None of these objections are major. The bottom line is in the sentence that follows. Baxter excels at this sort of story; and this particular Baxter is most excellent.

**There’s no problem here, of course, really—most SF novels, and God knows my own, have swallowed much greater implausibilities of physics than this and lived to tell the tale. Except … well, except that everything else about the novel is so scrupulously researched and realised, so carefully grounded in the plausible. The endnote quotes scientific work ‘deriving from the seminal paper by Miguel Alcubierre (Classical and Quantum Gravity vol 11, L73-L77, 1994).’ Creating a warp bubble big enough to enclose a spaceship would, the book tells us, need vast amounts of power; a sizeable fraction of the sun’s mass converted directly into energy. Baxter gets round that, ‘reducing the energy required by shrinking the “warp bubble”’, something he takes from ‘a paper by C Van Den Broeck’. By this logic we could, with much less energy, create a big bubble attached to ‘our’ spacetime by a tiny bottleneck, like an aneurysm attached to an artery wall. To which I say, er, OK. Now to create even this (unless I’ve misread the text, planck-scale) balloon-neck requires great masses of antimatter, which in this novel is mined from the space around Jupiter—surely an undertaking of prodigious, unlikely-to-succeed engineering and human difficulty right there. But later in the novel warp bubbles are reignited, seemingly at will, and I wondered: using what energy, exactly? More, I worried how, precisely (look at the hands! see them wave!) the huge Ark ship was inserted into the bottle of its warp bubble, through so prodigiously narrow a neck; and furthermore how the bubble was sent on its way—with pinpoint accuracy across many, and latterly scores, of lightyears—how propelled and oriented. And I worried that the gravitational ‘lensing’ of the bubble, several times alluded-to, would work effectively to focus and thus swamp the ship with high energy particles as it scooped through deep space, with deleterious and probably fatal effects upon the crew. And finally I wondered how the warp bubble was reintegrated into conventional spacetime once the destination was reached. But apart from that, it’s all good. Plus, nicely, Baxter has the character actually responsible for the warp field assert repeatedly, and quite plausibly, that the physics are impossible, that they can’t be traveling between the stars at warp, and that it must all be an area-51-type simulation. Which is nicely done, because in a radical sense of course it is all a fantasy—not area-51, but area-Baxter, which is an even stranger zone.


Phil Archer said...

I'm a little surprised by your fulsome praise here. Yes, it's a very enjoyable read and I went through it quickly as I wanted to know how it would end. As you say, it's far from obvious at the start, or even in the middle. But I don't think it's Baxter at his best. For one thing it's awfully close to Voyage (which is terrific). I remain a committed buyer of his novels as my shelves of his first editions attest, but I felt there was something missing from Ark.

Although it would create a tome of (Peter F) Hamiltonesque proportions, I wondered whether Flood and Ark would have been better written in one. Flood tells the story of the human misery. Ark's main characters are far less richly painted as the the plot takes us ever onwards. Put the two together and allow the characters and events to interweave a little more. Ark does mention the human misery being suffered beyond the razor wire but the two worlds are kept more separate than seems fair.

The main question I want to ask would create a spoiler so I can't phrase it any more clearly than this: I was left wondering whether there be a third book in the story to tell the story of the colonisation of Earth II? If not, that looks like an opportunity missed.

Oh this sounds negative. I am a huge fan of Stephen Baxter's work, it's terrific. I just felt a certain hunger after reading Ark.

Adam Roberts said...

Maybe I am overpraising it, a little. I think what I especially liked is the way its often whizz-bang surface plot seemed to me to articulate a much more interesting layer of Medea-ish narrative about the abuse of children, taken in a broad sense of the word. That's not really a focus of Flood, and I thought it was appropriate and well-handled here.

I do take your point about Earth II; but then again quite liked the way the book refused to tie-up all its loose ends.

Niall Harrison said...

There is of course the novella "Earth II", published in Asimov's earlier this year, which details some events on that world a few centuries further on.

Adam Roberts said...

Haven't read that one yet.

bo3021 said...
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David Ketterer said...

For me, *Ark* is fatally undermined by Stephen Baxter's failure to explain why an obvious solution is not possible. Why not build a "space elevator* to siphon Earth's excess water into space?

David Ketterer

geniuswrites4u said...

I just finished Ark and I need the sequel which apparently doesn't exist. What happens to everybody? What was that bleep on the radar that Venus heard?

Adam Roberts said...

I assume he's leaving some things open, should he wish to return to this imagined universe at any point.

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