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Book Review: Ark

15 Feb

Ark

Author: Stephen Baxter
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2009

And so my jaunt through the Flood and Ark universe continues.

When I first read Ark a few years ago it was many books after I’d read its predecessor, which made it, to be entirely honest, confusing as hell and incredibly difficult to follow. This isn’t one of those stand-alone sequels – you need to know your history for it to make any sense.

So as part of the re-read I read the two one after the other, and it really did make a world of difference. Not that I didn’t enjoy Ark the first time round (I’ve never not enjoyed a Stephen Baxter book), but a combination of better remembering the events that lead up to this book and now being more familiar with Baxter’s style of writing made for a far more gripping and harrowing story than I remembered, and one which raises many questions about the general human condition.

The Plot

The first third of Ark overlaps with Flood, starting in 2025 in the early years of the flood that will eventually cover all of the Earth’s land. We follow a group of billionaires who, seeing that the world is at the tipping point, decide to build an ark that will save mankind from extinction. While several arks are considered by the group, Edward Kenzie, Patrick Groundwater and Jerzy Glemp do not believe that there’s any chance of the Earth sustaining a sizeable enough human population in the long-term. They instead begin work on Ark One, a ship capable of superluminal flight that will carry mankind to the stars and a new home world.

The main characters throughout the book are the Candidates, primarily the children of those funding Ark One’s construction. Holle Groundwater, Kelly Kenzie, Zane Glemp and Venus Jennings will spend their entire lives training to become the Ark’s crew and the hope for mankind’s future. Somewhere out there is Earth II, waiting to be colonised, but getting there will not be easy. A place on the Ark isn’t guaranteed, and the Candidates have led very sheltered lives. When launch day comes these four will make it onto the Ark, but many of their loved ones and fellow Candidates won’t, as the launch site becomes the target of people trying to escape the rising flood waters.

The journey to Earth II takes the Ark the better part of 10 years to complete, but Earth II is not a welcoming home. Its axial tilt is similar to Uranus’, resulting in violent seasonal and temperature changes that leave much of the planet’s land surface uninhabitable for humans. With no natural satellite its axis is also not stable, which could result in violent shifts in the future. The planet is also devoid of most minerals, meaning that re-building a technological society will be impossible. The crew makes a choice: some will land and attempt to colonise Earth II, some will return to a flooded Earth and make do with what they find, while the rest take the decision to journey on to Earth III, a more promising potential home that will take an additional thirty years to get to. Each choice presents risk, not least the fact that the Ark was not designed to support a decades-long mission, and each group must face the consequences of the choices they make.

The Writing Style

My summary of the book’s plot doesn’t really do anything justice, primarily because Ark is a very dense book that deals with a lot of different characters, locations and plot points and the various emotions and conflicts that go along with these.

Given the density of the story Stephen Baxter writes with a remarkable level of clarity so that, so long as you can remember the important bits from Flood and pay attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter, you’re never going to get lost. The only thing that can get a little bit complicated (and admittedly dry) is when the scientific concepts behind superluminal flight are explained in significant detail – I just glossed over these, to be honest. I only need to know that the Ark can do it, and I’m not particularly concerned with how it does it since it all sounds convincing enough.

What I think I enjoyed the most about this book is how relentless everything is, whether it’s the encroaching flood, the gradual degradation of the Ark, or the inevitable conflicts that arise purely because of human nature, the reader’s never given a moment of respite so far as problems faced by the characters go. This allows the reader to relate to the characters, since they themselves are never given a moment of respite from the issues facing them. Thrown into that are some good philosophical questions that, depending on how you wish to proceed with the book, will either give rise to some self-reflection or simply be a nice little footnote in each character’s backstory.

If we ever do take to the stars, I hope they give the crew a copy of Ark as part of their training.

The Feelings

Hopeful, and morally conflicted.

If Flood is ultimately a book about hope that gradually fades as reality sets in then Ark is the opposite of that, where human defiance will laugh in the face of the problem and go out of its way to do something that even we don’t believe is entirely possible.

What gave rise to the most consideration for me was the question of whether survival or humanity is more important. Human beings inherently believe in a sense of fairness, at least on a personal level – deserve to be treated in a particular way because possess x, y and z qualities/capabilities. How can that be balanced in a world where life and death become arbitrary, and the survival of the human race depends on humans doing some very inhumane things and making very inhumane decisions? The flip side to that, of course, is that if we don’t focus on our survival, then there won’t be anyone left to carry on the better part of mankind’s achievements and capabilities.

Good, light-hearted questions to ask yourself, in other words.

My Final Rating: 10 / 10
Buy Ark at Amazon.com

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Posted by on February 15, 2016 in Book Review

 

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