Book Review – Stephen Baxter’s “Ark”

Recently I finished reading Ark, an interesting science-fiction / space travel book written by Stephen Baxter.  The book is a direct sequel to Flood.

In Flood, readers were introduced to a frightening vision of a near-future scenario where vast underground chambers of water stored in the Earth’s mantle were released, unleashing an unending surge of water that, over the course of many years, flooded the entire planet.  As the waters continued to rise, countries were destroyed and people were forced to keep moving to higher ground and fighting to survive.

At one point in Flood, some of the characters witness a rocket launching into the sky, carrying what’s rumored to be the fate of humanity in search of a new home.  That’s what brings us here today.

Stephen Baxter — Ark

Ark begins with rising flood waters and a partially flooded planet.  There’s no end to the flooding in sight, and scientists are tasked with finding a way to ensure that at least part of Earth’s humanity will survive, should there be a worst-case scenario of the planet being completely submerged.

Ships and rafts are easy solutions, but maintaining them (and their occupants) years later could be a challenge.  It’s not a permanent answer to humanity’s survival.

In Ark, it’s decided that humanity will have to find a new home in outer space.  The only catch is that the closest planet that might be able to sustain human life is several light years away, a distance far too great for today’s conventional rockets.

Regardless, plans begin immediately for a rocket, an ark, to carry a small part of humanity off this planet and to a new home somewhere in the stars.  Children of the scientists and engineers are selected to become part of a rigorous training program to prepare them for their destiny in space.  These children are known as Candidates.

Over the next twenty or so years, the new space program continues to develop both the rocket and its future crew.  The Candidates train heavily in a variety of scenarios relevant of what to expect on their mission, and when they arrive at their new planet, a place called Earth II.  All around them chaos continues as the waters continue to rise, and the fleeing populations all gather towards Denver, Colorado, one of the last areas of high ground in the continental U.S.

The rocket barely launches into space just as violence and social unrest reaches its breaking point.  Not all of the Candidates make it on board as there’s a mutiny by the security guards, and many illegal people rush into the rocket just before liftoff.

The Ark’s first destination is Jupiter.  The crew has to collect anti-matter found near the massive planet before the next phase of their journey.  Once they have enough of the anti-matter fuel, the crew creates a warp bubble around their spacecraft, and suddenly they are whisked across the galaxy at the speed of light.

It takes around seven years for the spaceship to reach its destination.  During that time, the crew has to learn how to work with each other and resolve their differences.  There is no more contact with Earth, and the people are on their own for making decisions and solving problems.  During the course of the travel, many of the female crew members become pregnant and have children while in space.  This was mostly planned so that the future generations of human children could help settle and colonize their new home.

It’s not as joyous as expected when they finally arrive at Earth II.  It’s a planet with water, land, and the right distance from a sun to sustain life on Earth, but it’s not an ideal world.  Earth II is tilted completely on its side, making the climate extreme on most of the planet aside from a small strip of land around the middle.  In addition to that, Earth II is basically a “dead” planet.  The planet is believed to be over a billion years older than Earth, there’s little vegetation, almost no plate tectonics, and it looks like other civilizations have already mined the planet for precious resources.

Sure, the crew can land and colonize the planet, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be able to mine the resources to create advanced technology to one day leave that planet.  Whoever lands there will never be able to leave.

However, Earth II isn’t the only option for survival in space.  It’s quickly pointed out that there’s another planet that’s even better.  Unfortunately, reaching that better planet means another thirty years of space travel.

This revelation causes an uproar and split decision with the crew of the Ark.  It’s ultimately decided that the Ark could be split apart to accommodate everybody.  Some people decide to stay and colonize Earth II.  They take one of the shuttles and some supplies, and they descend to the planet.  Another group takes part of the Ark and creates a warp bubble to return to Earth.  The rest of the people take the other half of the Ark and begin their long journey to Earth III.

The journey to Earth III is a grueling process as the people have to cope with being in a smaller spaceship for a significantly longer journey.  Children continue to be born, and it’s not long when there are generations of children who have lived completely in space and known nothing other than the inside of the Ark.  This ultimately leads to a revolt by the children as they believe that instead of being in space and traveling faster than light, they are instead part of an intricate simulation.  The other hull is breached during the revolt and several people are killed from the decompression and being sucked out into space.

Meanwhile, the other half of the Ark arrives back on Earth and lands by a raft floating above what used to be Colorado.  It’s a culture shock seeing just how far humanity has devolved and become more primitive on the ocean world.  Some of the crew members are briefly taken beneath the sea on a submarine, and they discover Ark II, an underwater survival shelter.  Ark II is a high-tech world run with military precision.  It’s located near Yellowstone and is powered by geothermal heat.  Underwater robots help maintain the structure and also mine for minerals.

However, it’s just a glimpse of basically the good life as the crew from the Ark is unwanted there.  They’ve basically failed in their mission of colonizing another world, and they took the selfish route of returning to a doomed Earth instead of making the colonization work in space, and ensuring the survival of the human race.  The Ark crew is then returned to the surface and forced to life and fend for themselves on one of the rafts.

Out in space, the Ark finally arrives at Earth III.  Just as expected, it’s a much better planet in terms of survivability.  The planet is young, it’s active, and it has plenty of water and land.  It’s not perfect, but it’ll work.  The only catch is that after enduring so much in space and so many hardships, only about half of the occupants on the Ark will be able to land on the planet.  The ship is down to just one shuttle, and it’s no capable of making return trips.  Once the shuttle lands on Earth III, that’s it.

The shuttle is modified and made to fit most of the children from the Ark.  Three adults make up the rest of the crew. To maintain genetic diversity, none of the children are siblings, and none of the adults are their parents.  It’s harsh for the people remaining on the Ark, but that’s what it takes to ensure the survival of humanity.  The shuttle is loaded with supplies, and it safely lands on Earth III.

The Ark then leaves Earth III’s orbit and goes off to explore nearby planets, possible future homes when Earth III’s future generations are able to explore again.  Before departing, the crew of the Ark promises to send Earth II all the data they can gather about the other planets.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So is Stephen Baxter’s Ark any good?

Yes.  For the most part, this was an enjoyable book.  It’s obvious that Baxter is a fan of the classic sci-fi movie When Worlds Collide, and it’s even mentioned by a scientist early in the story.

Ark is basically divided into two parts.  The first half of the book deals with the Candidates and their training.  The story jumps around as the Candidates deal with different situations, from their training to their harsh instructor to the chaos around them from the decline of humanity.

The second half of the book primarily deals with space travel, from the short trip to Jupiter and then the longer voyages to Earth II and, ultimately, Earth III.  It’s rather tedious getting through some of the material at times, and you may believe that you’re part of the mostly boring journey.  Thankfully, some of the characters are interesting and there are a few events that help speed up the reading process.

For me, some of the best parts of the book were when the crew arrived at each of the planets.  Unfortunately, it’s also a major downfall of this book.  Don’t expect to learn any outcomes for the colonists on Earth II or Earth III.  Ark clearly focuses on the journey to the planets and not life after that point.

The story has some other little quirks as well, such as the way that sometimes the characters would be in a tense scenario (such as when two of the Candidates are basically trapped behind enemy lines after an uprising in Colorado), and we wouldn’t know how they escaped.  The story would stop at a cliffhanger and then jump ahead a few months or years.

Speaking of that, the years can pass by really quickly in this book.  Make sure you take note of the year written at the beginning of the chapters, and then page back a chapter or two to see the previous year.  There’s really no transition or reference to the passage of time (such as saying, “Three years later . . . “) in this book.

In the end, Ark leaves you hanging for more information and the continuation of the story.  There’s so much more to tell about the future of Earth as well as the colonists on Earth II and Earth III.  What obstacles will they face?  Will any of them ultimately survive?  Did any other country on Earth have a secret survival bunker?  Those questions and more are left at the end of Ark.

It’s a good book with some fascinating concepts, but it leaves readers craving so much more in the end.

Maybe one day there will be another sequel.

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