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Book Review: Landfall

19 Feb

Landfall

Author: Stephen Baxter
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2015

I was always a little sad that Ark didn’t receive a “proper” sequel, and I’ve never really been one for short stories. The main reason for this is that I’ve never really come across a short story that was able to be coherent and fully realised, and I was often left feeling that they should have been turned into full-length novels.

Not one to disappoint, Stephen Baxter went out of his way to provide not one but three fantastic shorts that provide a far better set of stories than any single full-length sequel could have given to the Flood/Ark universe. The first two were originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, with the third being available in a rather expensive and limited edition hardcover collection. This Kindle-friendly version makes all three stories available at a reasonable price, and are utterly essential reading for anyone who’s read Flood and Ark.

The Plot

Earth II (400 years after the events of Ark)

Xaia Windru is one of the effective monarchs of Zeeland, an island nation on Earth II that has gradually begun to build an empire out of the islands that make up the Scatter, one of the few areas on the planet that’s inhabitable year-round.

As part of the social design established by the colonists of Earth II warfare is carried out predominantly by women, and Xaia wants to leave a lasting legacy of empire and secure her family’s place as the rulers of Zeeland. Having conquered the island of Brython she sets her sights further afield to the Belt, a slim continent that runs the length of the planet. The Belt is home to the city of Ararat, the original landing site of the Founders, and beyond that lies the fabled City of the Living Dead.

Earth II shows signs of having previously been inhabited – there are ruins on the island of Little Jamaica, and the complete absence of most metals and the local equivalent of fossil fuels despite a fossil record that indicates that such fuels should exist. The City of the Living Dead, according to the few legends that have developed on Earth II, is the last remaining structure left by this lost alien civilisation, and Xaia’s determined to be the one to find it.

The journey, however, will be perilous. At the extreme North of Earth II the planet is either in perpetual baking sunlight or left in total snow-covered darkness, depending on the time of year. Beyond that there is the additional danger discovered by the scientists and philosophers on Zeeland and at Ararat: without a moon to stabilise Earth II’s axis, the planet’s gradually being tugged at by the two Jovian planets further out in the solar system. Ultimately this may make Earth II similar to Earth in terms of its seasonality, but it will take a lot for the human population and its imports from Earth to stand a chance of surviving this monstrous shift on their new home world.

Earth III (1000 years after the events of Ark)

Life on Earth III is centred entirely around the worship of the Designers and the Controllers, mythical beings who have created the simulated reality in which all human beings live. This religion is maintained by the Speaker of Speakers, the ruler of a loose empire of territory and alliances. The heart of this empire is the Navel, the substellar point on Earth III that’s home to the Eye, understood to be part of the complex machinery used to maintain the Simulation.

Tripp, a woman from the north polar region of Earth III, doesn’t believe that at all. She has dedicated a lot of time to collecting the scattered pieces of what is known as the Venus Document. This document, supposedly written by a now semi-mythical figure that descended from the Ark, gives insight into humanity’s journey from a distant planet to make a new home on Earth III. To say these things out loud, however, borders on heresy.

To prove her point Tripp plans an expedition to the antistellar on the other side of the planet, which is covered by perpetual snow and darkness, to find a monument similar to the Eye which was identified by the writer of the Venus Document. It will be an enormous undertaking, spanning half of the known world and then half of the unknown world. Tripp is accompanied by Vala and Brod, two star-crossed lovers trying to outrun an army, on a journey that may forever change humanity’s understanding of where it comes from and why it now lives on this strange planet.

Earth I (10 000 years after the events of Ark)

10 000 years have passed since the Ark made a desperate scramble to the stars, and mankind has finally become an interplanetary species. At this point, the religious teachings of Earth III have been combined with the historical knowledge of Earth II and Urthen (Earth n), with the result being a mythology of the Sim Controllers and Designers who sent the Ark into space to seed the stars.

This mythology forms the backdrop to the story of ‘Earth I’. SheLu, a monk/astronomer, believes that there is some truth to the story, and she is determined to find the mythical lost home world. Paradoxically she believes that finding this planet will prove the existence of the Controllers and Designers, as it would give the mythology some grounding in fact. PiRo, a philosopher, believes that the mythology is flawed and that there is no home world, with humans being the result of convergent evolution on the different planets.

The voyage to find the lost home world will take approximately 100 years to complete (50 years there, 50 years back to Urthen). Anti-senescence technology will keep SheLu, her daughter LuSi, PiRo and his son JaEm young for the duration of the journey as they visit Airtree (Earth III), Windru (Earth II) and gather data that will direct them to an ocean planet that just might be Earth I.

The Writing Style

Earth II

The entire culture that has developed on Earth II is a marvel to read. The people of Earth II, all ultimately descended from the same 15 colonists from the Ark, are acutely aware of where they come from, the deaths of billions back on Earth, and the struggle in took for the Ark to reach its destination. And that is the inherent problem in their society – Earth II does not have the necessary resources to recreate the technology that Earth had, but its inhabitants are nevertheless beholden to the idea that one day Earth II might become a close facsimile of the drowned home world. All of this is perfectly brought to life, as is Xaia’s struggle to reconcile what the Founders accomplished (and recognition of those accomplishments) with the need to create a proper society for the people of the present. The story is only 50-odd pages long, but it’s as well constructed and realised as any of Baxter’s other works.

Earth III

While ‘Earth II’ is a story about a civilisation struggling to free itself from the past, ‘Earth III’ follows a society that’s trying to understand where it comes from. Throughout the story Baxter has managed to entrench this sense that something is wrong: humans shouldn’t be bathed in perpetual sunlight, they shouldn’t be on a world where it’s always too cold to go without layers of clothes, and it doesn’t make sense that the planet has so many animals that all seemingly do not belong there. This comes through with each character, however different they may be or how close they are to the established theocracy that rules the planet. What is also fascinating is how little ideas that were first brought up in Ark have had long-lasting and, at times, damaging consequences on Earth III – mankind was meant to set up a new home world, not establish a religion based on the loose memories of children conjured up by the mind of someone whose psyche was slowly fracturing.

While ‘Earth II’ was primarily established around Xaia’s character, here all of the characters are important as they work together to establish not only who they are and how they came to be on Earth III, but also what civilisations may have thrived before their arrival. It works well as a story in its own right, but is best when used as a contrast to the story and the culture of ‘Earth II’.

Earth I

Much like the mythology in this story is a combination of what is found in ‘Earth II’ and ‘Earth III’, the concepts it deals with are a mashup of what was dealt with in the previous two stories. SheLu does eventually find Earth, and all initial indications are that it is the fabled lost home world – all the animals form part of the “Human Suite” (things that we can eat or things that can eat us) and the rotation matches up with the timescales used on all planets inhabited by humans. More horrifyingly, they discover the form of humans evolved to live on a water world – voracious hunters that are similar in appearance but devoid of all rational capabilities (intelligence being an expensive commodity that these creatures cannot afford).

What Baxter deals with here is the question of whether knowledge and the truth is always useful. Will knowledge of mankind’s origins (and what became of mankind on this drowned planet) be of any benefit to the inhabitants of the other planets, or will the idea that humans magically appeared on the different planets, while untrue, be a healthier belief? There isn’t a right or wrong answer, but it’s one that the characters must deal with and resolve before leaving Earth and starting the return trip to Urthen.

The Feelings

Satisfied.

While Ark had a brilliant ending that was so characteristically Baxter (in that it is both very good and soul-destroying), it did beg the question: “what happened to all the colonists?”. These stories answer all those questions and then a few more, and wrap up the series in a way that few authors manage to achieve.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t read a sequel to ‘Earth I’, because if that ever comes out I’m gonna be all over it like white on rice.

My Final Rating: 9 / 10
Buy Landfall: Tales From the Flood/Ark Universe at Amazon.com

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Posted by on February 19, 2016 in Book Review

 

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