Author: Stephen Baxter
Genre: Science Fiction
I am a creature of varying tastes, and of late I have found myself becoming more and more enamoured with science fiction. However, much like you need the right cup for the right hot beverage, different media will dictate the kind of science fiction I want to partake in. So far as movies are concerned, any old soft science will do (because everything’s fun when you soft science!). Books, however, are a different ball game entirely. Trying to find a decent science fiction novel is a tricky task, especially considering any old fool seems to think they can conjure a futuristic civilisation into being provided it falls into the Intergalactic Empire of the Psychic Unicorn People realm of thinking. This genre of science fiction does nothing for me.
This is why I am a complete and utter Stephen Baxter fan-girl. Like, if I had ovaries, I-would-have-his-babies fan-girl. His novels are like intellectual porn. They are masterfully written but also thoroughly researched, so a lot of the information behind what he is saying is scientifically accurate (at least at the time the book went to print). Proxima is an excellent look into the near future and examines a lot of questions that mankind (should) face if we were to extend our little grasp beyond the Earth to our own solar system, as well as other habitable planets.
In the near future mankind has managed to colonise most of our solar system thanks to the discovery of kernels, little deposits of virtually limitless energy. The kernel deposits were discovered on Mercury, although how they got there and exactly how they work are not at all understood by the people who use them. Their use is restricted to Earth’s Western nations, whilst the Chinese, Earth’s other dominant power, have been given carte blanche to conduct mining operations in the asteroid belt beyond Mars. The tensions that arise due to the West’s monopoly of the kernels directs most of the events that take place in the book.
Beyond their ability to make travel between the Sun’s inner planets possible, kernel technology has also made the exploration of planets orbiting other suns feasible. Proxima Centauri, the closest star to ours, has been found to host its own planetary system, one of which appears to be habitable. In order to beat the Chinese to it, the West sends a group of rejects collected from both Earth and Mars on a one-way trip to the planet. They’re not given any choice and there’s no intention of ever bringing them back to Earth – they will be divided into groups, dropped off at various locations on the planet, given enough supplies to build functioning farming colonies, and then left to their own devices.
The first half of the novel deals with the initial problems facing the colonists as they attempt to build a life on the planet, which they dub Per Ardua. Per Ardua is Earth-like in the broadest sense, but it is tidally locked to its star, meaning that there is no day-night cycle, and virtually no seasonal-cycle. The star is also prone to radiation storms, which means that the colonists need to perpetually seek shelter. The life forms on the planet are also quite different to our own, although they thankfully cannot eat any of the new arrivals. Then there are the people in the small colonist group themselves who struggle with this strange new world. Eventually, through a series of psychological breaks, we are left only with Yuri Eden, Mardina and their robotic assistant, the ColU, who make up the main protagonists of the book.
Whilst the colonists face the troubles of trying to make Per Ardua habitable for humans, mankind is also facing problems back on Earth. Ravaged by what are dubbed ‘The Climate Jolts’, large swathes of the planet are now uninhabitable and the majority of the new centres of civilisation are located to the extreme North. Earth cannot sustain its enormous population, and none of the off-planet colonies are designated for civilian occupation. Tensions between the West and China continue to mount over how best the solar system’s resources can be shared, and these tensions are escalated when a hatch is discovered on Mercury, linking that planet to Per Ardua. The inhabitants of Per Ardua, wanting no part in the politics that lead to them being stranded there, do not want Earth’s problems infringing on their own blossoming civilisation.
Wedged between all these opposing factions is Stef Kalinski, a scientist attempting to discover exactly what the kernels are and where they come from. But the hatch complicates things greatly for her when it rewrites time upon being opened, giving her a twin sister she doesn’t remember but that everyone else does.
The Writing Style
Anyone who has ever read a Stephen Baxter novel will know that his writing style can be a bit dry at times, and he certainly doesn’t care about you becoming attached to characters only for horrible things to happen to them. This is all applicable to Proxima as well, although for all his characters are unlikable at times, you are more than willing to forgive this choice in writing because you know they are realistic. Humans are selfish creatures driven by selfish motives, and given the situations presented in the book you know that this is how normal people would behave and interact with one another.
Apart from human interaction, the native Per Arduan life has been very vividly brought to life. One particular kind of life form, which the colonists name ‘Builders’, are clearly sentient. They are capable of complex communication, have a society of their own, and appear to have a collective memory akin to folklore that humans have. It is also implied that they were once capable of more complex societies and cities like our own, although for reasons they themselves cannot remember, they no longer do this. Despite their completely alien origins and their distinctive differences to us (all Per Arduan life, for a start, has a three-fold symmetry, as opposed to our double) you greatly sympathise with these creatures, especially in the face of human expansion on the planet. The ColU is also able to communicate with them, and their insights into human behaviour are often quite thought-provoking.
There is also the constant set of contrasts that your attention is being drawn to. Even with the majority of Earth being decimated by climate change, the colonies throughout the solar system are even less desirable places to live – Mercury is scorching, Mars is freezing, and the asteroids are freezing and completely lack any meaningful kind of gravity. Even Per Ardua, which is far more hospitable, is not Earth – this is particularly highlighted when Mardina and Yuri have a daughter – this little girl does not understand the concept of sleep cycles, and is very confused when her parents tell her about ‘night’, because she hasn’t experienced one. Yet, when she finds herself back on Earth as an adult, the sun is too bright and the seasons too variable for her. This kind of writing is enjoyable because it does make you think about what Baxter is trying to get across, but not in the way that detracts from enjoying the story or that gives you the feeling that he is trying to drive a point home with a sledge-hammer.
So far as emotions are concerned, you probably won’t get an awful lot out of Proxima, but it certainly is thought-provoking. For example, despite the plethora of life on Per Ardua, the powers that be on Earth order that it be removed to clear the way for human progress. The reason for this is that alien life is no longer the novelty one would initially expect it to be – Baxter assumes that, by this stage, simple organic life has been discovered on both Mars and Titan. It raises an interesting point – were we to discover other life out there, however simple it may be, would the implications of its existence diminish to such an extent that we would decimate it as we do life on our own planet?
Then there are the off-planet colonies that raise questions. Each group of humans encountered have become accustomed to their strange surroundings, be it the lack of gravity, the inability to walk outside of a contained environment, the lack of day-night cycles, etc. However, these colonists have extreme difficulty when they return to Earth, simply because its environment is not the one they are used to, irrespective of whether or not that environment is pleasant. It makes you think how strange the future of space travel will be for our descendants when we eventually reach the point where such exploits are viable.
If you are ever in the mood for a well-written piece of science fiction that raises a lot of questions and makes you think then Proxima is definitely worth a read. If you haven’t read a Baxter novel before, it’s also a good starting point since (until November, at least) it functions as a standalone work, so you can read it and decide whether or not his style is for you.
My Final Rating: 10/10
Buy Proxima at Amazon.com