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Ark, UK cover

Jonathan McCalmont:

In 2008, Stephen Baxter published Flood, a British Science Fiction Association Award-nominated novel about the drowning of the Earth and humanity's increasingly desperate attempts to adapt in the face of violent political upheaval and ecological catastrophe. Ark is a very similar kind of book. Not only does it see Baxter returning to the drowning Earth described in Flood, it also sees him wrestling with themes that characterise not only that novel but also many of his best works. This results in something of an aesthetic dilemma: Is Baxter to be praised for his seemingly ever-increasing control over an array of themes and issues that few other authors bother to tackle? Or is he to be condemned for writing and re-writing the same kind of book over and over again? Ultimately, this is a decision that the reader has to make for himself, but I would argue that sometimes there is more to literature than fresh ideas, particularly when the ideas are as profound and powerfully expressed as those in Ark.

Partly overlapping with the events of Flood, Ark revolves around an attempt by the remnants of the US government and the corporate upper classes to ensure the survival of the human race by mounting a last ditch attempt at colonising another planet. The book breaks neatly into three distinct acts. The first sees engineers and scientists struggling to build a space ark and a star drive in a race against the ever-encroaching and all-devouring waves of Earth's expanding oceans; the second sees the crew trying to live together on the long voyage towards their new home; and the final act sees the crew splitting up in order to pursue separate attempts at colonisation.

From the opening scenes, we can see that Baxter's emphasis for this novel is primarily social. Technical issues such as the construction of the warp drive and the actual realities of settling a new planet are glossed over in order to allow greater emphasis on the social systems that Baxter puts in place. In the first act, we see the training and bonding of a future crew composed mostly of children. This yields the hothouse of competition, bad relationships and clashing personalities that you might have expected from Ender's Game (1985) had it not been written by a pompous ideologue with only the most passing of interests in genuine human psychology. Indeed, instead of being a Hitlerian proving ground for the members of tomorrow's master race, Baxter's Academy is a more intense version of your average high-school : a grotesque womb of neuroses, psychoses, sexual obsessions and decade-long rivalries made all the more claustrophobic by the pressures placed on the students by their teachers, their parents and the environment. They have to grow up fast, they have to grow up smart, and all the time more and more refugees are turning up to pound at the gates begging to be let into the last oasis of white-collar existence in a drowning world. Unsurprisingly, this high-pressure environment creates its own darker side—a darker side that emerges fully formed from human nature and which the characters are forever struggling to deal with.

Whenever they put their pretty heads together like this, Zane felt a kind of deep panic. He was always left out of such discussions. Oh, Holle always took care of him, ever since her own first day at the Academy, when Zane had taken care of her. But that wasn't enough to give him a way into the core social network of this bunch of bright, attractive, intensely competitive sixteen- to eighteen-year olds. (p. 83)

The pattern, as it had begun, was familiar to Grace by now. Harry homed in on his students at their most vulnerable, seduced them with promises of loyalty and safety, and then subjected them to the strange choreography of his first night-time visit. And then, just as before, he told Matt he loved him. (p. 154)

When the star ship eventually launches it comes almost as a relief but, right from the start, things do not go according to plan. During the botched launch, a number of crew members simply do not make it to the ship, and a number of military officers decide to stow away. This means that key personnel are missing and that all of a sudden the pampered Academy graduates have to deal with people from very different backgrounds. This is the first of many events that Baxter uses to stir the pot of social change.

Although Baxter has a reputation for technically-minded Hard SF, many of his more recent books have been concerned primarily with the same sort of dynamics. For example, his Time's Tapestry series used an extended timeline to explore the changing face of Britain between the Roman invasion and the Second World War. Because of this vast timeline, Baxter used a series of prophecies to ensure a degree of narrative coherence between the various temporal vignettes. These prophecies meant that, even if the books were not the story of a single group of characters, the characters were still faintly connected, and we could still follow the evolution of the plot across the series. Flood was, structurally speaking, almost identical to the Time's Tapestry books, and Ark continues in much the same vein. However, instead of relying on a heavy-handed and fantastical plot device such as prophecy, Flood relied upon the complex bonds of friendship and obligation that grew out of a group of people being held hostage together. Ark revisits that strange bond in its initial chapters by having a character be tricked into applying to be on the starship by someone who was once held hostage with her mother, a mother she never knew. However, Ark's uniting thread is even less heavy-handed than that of Flood. Ark shows us the kids as they form the relationships that will serve them through decades of interstellar travel. No matter how many times Baxter winds the clock forward, these bonds of friendship, love and hatred bind the crew and the narrative together. These relationships also give a shape to the social systems that Baxter lovingly constructs.

Baxter's approach to the societies he writes about is that of an engineer, or the kind of detached and technocratic social anthropologist that academia no longer produces. He sees societies as complex systems under various kinds of pressure and very much subject to the laws of entropy. Indeed, Ring (1993) showed us the social changes that could take place during a centuries-long voyage on a generation ship. As the initial crew members died off and their descendants sought out new ways to live, whole new societies and cultures were birthed and destroyed, eventually yielding an almost Amerindian primitive society that lived surrounded by the advanced technology of their ancestors. Though Flood and Ark take place over much shorter time-spans, they share the same lack of faith in human institutions and individual exceptionalism. This lack of faith goes some way to explaining Baxter's approach to both characterisation and plotting.

Ark's characters—including the even-tempered fixer Holle, the ambitious Kelly and the mentally ill Zane—are not what drives the action in the novel. Yes, the characters are locked up together on a long and cramped interstellar flight, and yes, the plot is mostly concerned with conflicts that emerge between the different characters, but it is not the personalities and attributes of the individual characters that drive the action. Baxter's characters are either archetypal or drawn in broad strokes because ultimately they are just parts of much wider systems, and it is these social systems that interest Baxter. Indeed, the conflicts between the characters (including armed coups, changes of political regime and the abandonment of the traditional monogamous family life) occur as a result of key events. For example, following an assassination attempt, a fire nearly consumes one of the hulls of the ark. Baxter briefly deals with the reasons for the assassination attempt but then moves on to describing the knock-on effects of such a catastrophe. The character killed and the character doing the killing are merely catalysts for change in the wider system—change that soon becomes a relentless sociopolitical churn, and leaves the ship's society almost unrecognisable within a generation or so.

The social engineers in their offices in Denver and Gunnison had based their interior design on the dynamics of hunter-gatherer groups, the most ancient human social form, with a 'village' on every deck and a 'clan' uniting each hull. The social engineers, of course, didn't have to live here. (p. 258)

They wore basic wraps that left their arms and legs bare, their flesh adorned with tattoos that matched graffiti on the walls, markings incomprehensible to any adult that badged their allegiance to one tribe or another. They moved in swarms like exotic fish in a tank, ignoring the adults and eyeing each other with suspicion. Holle knew that few of these kids ever attended formal classes. It worried her that they were so disconnected from the ship and its mission; this was the next generation of crew after all. (p. 363)

For Baxter, social change is something both unstoppable and profoundly alienating. In both Flood and Ark, the children who grow up in space or on a flooded planet are separated from their parents and grandparents by an almost unbridgeable gap. When the children of the Ark become convinced that they are part of an experiment by an evil scientist there is no reasoning with them, no pleading; there is only raw power politics. The world-views of the different generations are completely incommensurate. Baxter also emphasises the physical changes between the generations: The shipborn are long-limbed while the raftborn back on Earth will most likely have webbed toes within a few generations. For Baxter, humanity is an infinitely adaptable species but that capacity for adaptation also brings with it a capacity for alienation. Humans, Baxter suggests are like the children of alcoholics; their need for stability and their yearning for a life on an even keel is made impossible by the environment they inhabit and their constant need to adapt to it. It is this paradoxical conservatism that gives Baxter's depictions of future generations their power. As with the human hives in his Destiny's Children books, we readers look upon these future generations and recoil in horror. Not because these future humans are unhappy or cruelly treated, but because we simply cannot imagine living the same lives as them.

With nods to the difficulty of space exploration presented in Titan (1997), and the universe filled with the ruins of long dead civilisations in Manifold: Space (2000), Ark is very much a part of the broad thematic sweep of Baxter's work to date. The book presents the universe as a place that is, at best, indifferent to intelligent life and, more frequently, actively hostile to it. The universe of Ark is such that, having achieved intelligence, our species was always more likely to die out than it was to colonise other worlds. Even if we could locate a planet capable of sustaining us, we might not particularly want to live there. And even if we could scrape together the resources and technical know-how that might allow us to get there, the entropy and perversity inherent in our short life-spans and fragile psyches would mean that we would not be exporting ourselves or our culture to the stars but something remote, distant and quite possibly terrifying. The coldness of Baxter's universe is such that, rather than treating him as a Hard SF physics geek in the tradition of Clarke, Egan, Vinge and Benford, we might actually be better off reading his works as part of the much underrated tradition of existentialist genre fiction produced by the likes of Lovecraft, Houellebecq, Howard and Vance. Yes, some of Ark's ideas have appeared in Baxter's previous books and yes, you should know by now what kind of book you are going to get when you pick up a Stephen Baxter novel, but the fact remains that he does something that relatively few genre authors do and he keeps getting better at it. Nobody does feelings of alienation in a hostile universe as well as Stephen Baxter and Ark is a perfect reminder of that fact.

Ark, UK cover

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro:

Stephen Baxter's novel Ark is phenomenal.

It's not exactly a sequel to Flood (2008), though it should be read right after Flood. It doesn't continue the story started in Flood in simple, chronological fashion. Instead, it's largely contemporaneous with the earlier novel, but not redundantly so. Consider the timelines to get a sense of Baxter's strategy. Comprised of five main sections, Flood begins in 2016 and sweeps progressively forward, covering 2017-2020, then 2025-2035, 2035-2041 and finally 2041-2052. That's a 36-year span. Ark kicks off the first of six sections in 2041, flashes back to events in 2025-2041, thus leading up to its "present," then proceeds through 2042-2044, 2044-2052, 2059 and climaxes in the final section set in 2068-2081. Therefore, from a strictly chronological point of view, it shares the first novel's timeline for almost three quarters of its length. And yet, it tells us a dramatically different, stunningly realized story from the point of view of (mostly) new characters, with just enough clever linkage to understand how the new intersects with the old. Ark covers a span of fifty-six years, more than three times that of the first volume, and it roams across vast distances in space as well. These are external manifestations of something we can say with confidence that applies to the novel on every level: it travels much farther than its predecessor. It takes even bigger risks, and the emotional payoff is consequently greater.

Ark chronicles the evolution of the Nimrod project, its purpose the design of the titular spacecraft that will lead a select, highly-trained crew of eighty Candidates to an extrasolar planet, Earth II, where they will establish a new home for humanity. Despite achieving FTL travel, the proposed trip is still estimated to take decades. To say that complications arise throughout the grueling space voyage would be like remarking that Odysseus suffered a minor detour on his journey home to Ithaca. Baxter is a master at making the situation more desperate and dire with almost every chapter—and there are ninety-eight of them. This profusion of small, compressed narrative sections, many only a few pages along, is more typically found in thrillers (see, for instance, recent titles by James Patterson or Dean Koontz) than brainy SF novels, but it's a clever gambit by Baxter. Unlike in thrillers, where events typically unfold over a short period of time and uber-brief chapters may have evolved as a way of combating readers' short attention spans, in Flood and in Ark they serve to automatically generate a sense of acceleration in the chilly, almost detached depiction of horrendous, vast-scale events and literally world-rending cataclysms. They also allow Baxter to land his storytelling camera on multiple characters in multiple places without the need for elaborate transitional pieces. One way to think of Flood in relation to its successor might be as a four-hundred-and-fifty page novel illustrating, in harrowing detail, the stakes attached to Ark's central mission. In this sense, Flood can be reinterpreted as a self-contained novel which doubles as incredibly effective backstory to an even grander adventure.

Baxter's non-duplicative time overlap allows for nifty reverberations of theme and character. Consider the exchange between two central characters on page 76 about the name of the space-colonization project: why Nimrod? Wilson Argent explains it with biblical allusions, referencing three quotes from Genesis. Shortly after the Flood of Noah, Nimrod becomes King of Babel: this draws the inevitable comparison between Ark One and Babel. Baxter interprets God's original punishment for man's construction of Babel as the result of God's fear of human achievement. That is to say, Ark One, like Nimrod, is a challenge to God. This exchange, five paragraphs long in Ark, is an almost verbatim repeat of a six-paragraph exchange in Flood, pages 438-39; the only significant difference is the characters dialoguing. In Ark, Holle Goundwater asks "why 'Project Nimrod?'" and Wilson Argent provides the answer. In Flood, the question "But why Nimrod? Why that name?" is posed by Thandie Jones and the answer is supplied by astronaut Gordo Alonzo (both of whom also feature in Ark). Why the repetition? Baxter is too skilled a storyteller for us to believe this is infodumping copy-and-paste laziness. The answer is narrative connectivity. Aside from the obvious function of making an implicit theme explicit, and perhaps foreshadowing terrible events to come by illustrating humanity's hubris and unwillingness to learn from the past (mythological or historical, your pick), it draws an intense continuity between four characters, establishing similarities between Thande and Holle, and Gordo and Wilson. Attentive readers will see this technique deployed in several other instances. Considering the novel's larger structure, it introduces a certain aesthetic of symmetry. (It also lets us know names are not accidental. Appositely, Holle is named after "the old Norse goddess of the afterlife [ . . . ], goddess of transformation," p. 179.)

One of Baxter's many strengths in this novel is his open acknowledgement of sources that inform the genre of disaster stories in particular and SF in general. There are explicit references to When Worlds Collide (p. 34), Robert Heinlein's The Door Into Summer (p. 65), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Footfall (p. 104) and, perhaps inevitably in a novel that depicts the construction of a workable warp bubble drive, Star Trek (p. 44). Venus Jenning, who will play a key role as astronomical observer on Ark One, "was a black girl whose family had come from Utah, fleeing the gathering Mormon uprising" and who reads "gaudy science fiction" titles even as she performs complex math in her head.

As can be inferred from the brief plot synopsis I've provided, a large chunk of Ark unfolds as a "generation starship" story. Baxter's Xeelee-sequence novella Mayflower II (2004) also featured a generation ship, and readers familiar with the tale will encounter some similarities. Both stories, for instance, contain premature mission launches; mothers who choose to leave a child behind and must deal with the consequences; musings on new shipborn generations who evolve new languages that contain no words for "sky" but forty different synonyms for "love"; and so on. But despite these commonalities, Ark is more ambitious and varied in its emotional overtones, more credible and nearer our comprehension. Unlike Mayflower's immortality-enhanced Elders, adrift on a millennial voyage beyond the Galaxy in which "it was all a question of timescales," Ark's passengers are ordinary mortals subject to several decades of transit time. A side-by-side comparison of these two stories also provides a measure of the evolution of Baxter's craft. Outside of the matter of length, which may facilitate the greater realism of Ark, its writing is more polished and assured, especially in descriptive passages and scenes of dialogue. Overall, it is just as unflinching, but reveals a greater sense of maturity.

Perhaps the only perceptible stylistic flaw in Ark is some mild repetition in the early chapters (for instance, Chapter 4 begins with "It was raining in Denver, a steady, unrelenting downpour" and in the very next paragraph we encounter "nothing like this steady, relentless downpour"), which tighter editing might have fixed. Baxter's prose is effective and stark, but occasionally it still droops a little with exposition. Mind you, these are small bubbles in a big ocean.

One of Baxter's main themes in this duology, and throughout much of his earlier work, is human adaptation to new environments. From the very first terrorist hostages in the opening of Flood, who adapt themselves to years of brutal incarceration and torture, to the whole of humanity adapting to the inexorable rise of sea levels, to the crew of Ark One adapting to years of confinement aboard a space-faring vessel, Baxter pursues this preoccupation with almost religious zeal. The message is simple: adapt or perish. Nature is endlessly inventive in the problems and solutions it generates but doesn't concern itself with human coziness throughout. Characters repeatedly reflect that children born either on rafts in a flooded earth or on Ark One, having never known a different way of life, demonstrate remarkable pliancy in learning to live in these harsh conditions. One character even suggests a biological experiment:

"In the longer term we should follow the life into its deeper retreat. I'm talking about a merger, of human DNA with extremophiles. I'm talking about sending prokaryotic bugs laced with the substance of humanity down into the deep hot biosphere, and maybe even beyond. It will be like the great endosymbiotic mergers of the past, where we took organelles like mitochondria within the substance of our cells." (p. 382)

Even when the results of humanity's adaptation to its environment are seemingly alien, they are more desirable than the alternative: extinction. At times the consequences of survival are clearly ethically repellent. There is a piercing section (p. 239-242) that makes perfectly clear to what horrendous lengths humans will go to stay alive, beyond even theft, rape, prolonged sexual abuse and murder. Late in the novel, a character whose name I will deliberately withhold says "We must be insane" (p. 446). I think that bluntly summarizes the extremity of Baxter's vision: insanity as a necessary trait for survival in insanely inhospitable circumstances.

Perhaps the most eloquent image Baxter develops for this adaptation, specifically to confinement, is an ingenious invention by Zane Glemp: infinite chess. It is played on a regular board, except that "players had to imagine the board wrapped around itself, so that the right edge was glued to the left, and the upper edge glued to the lower" (p. 277). Zane, who suffers trauma-induced dissociative identity disorder, and embodies the idea of adaptation leading to both physical and mental fragmentation, often provides a mouthpiece for realities or emotions the rest of Ark One's crew may be unwilling to voice. In connection to the infinite chess he has devised, Baxter writes:

The game was an obvious psychological metaphor for the freedom they all sought in an enclosed world, but it was ferociously difficult to play. 'Bastard beats me every time,' Mike Wetherbee murmured. (p. 278)

Zane's depth is representative of another novelistic virtue on display. In critical discussions about Flood, some felt that weak characterization was an issue. In Ark, the psychological richness and intensity of Baxter's characters is a triumph. They comprise perhaps the most vividly rendered, flawed-but-empathetic, engrossing cast he has yet conceived, and are absorbing by any standards. The claustrophobia of Ark One almost functions as a laboratory in which the more volatile character traits are forced to clash and ultimately explode. The mission's social engineers have chosen a crew that avoids all strong religious views, even atheism, despite desperate political leaders reversing "policies regarding the secularization of the state" and bringing "God back to the heart of our nation's destiny" (p. 171). The hope that a religion-free crew will result in less conflict is gently mocked after things begin to go wrong:

"Many people on the Ark are religious, but we aren't a religious community. Sometimes I wish we were, that we had a common mission ordained by one god or another. A monastery would be a better social model than a prison." (p. 276)

In time, a portion of the crew develops a radical new ship-centered epistemology, resulting from over-exposure to Zane's paranoid, diseased mind. This metaphysical system leads to one of the novel's most rending, tragic sequences. The conclusion, again, is clear: retreat into conceptual paradigms that don't encourage survivability are useless in the natural order of things and, as such, are ruthlessly eradicated. Dreams and hopes for a better future drive the Ark, yes, but its engines and bulkheads and command decisions must be wrought from more pragmatic ores if the crew is to survive.

Lisa Tuttle, writing for The Times, has described Ark as "a grim but exciting tale." One might add that its science and sociology are meticulously researched, and its storyline is consistently surprising. It is also a deeply moving and ironic work. I've mentioned one irony, the choice of the name Nimrod for a colossal project that has no easy or happy fate. Another—and this happens early on, so rest assured it is no major spoiler—is humanity's discovery of life on other planets as human life on Earth is becoming extinct. The same precisely poignant timing of events was also exploited by Baxter, to potent effect, in his Hugo-nominated story "Last Contact" (2007).

Deeper ironies reside too in the narrative imagery, which becomes increasingly aquatic as various characters near their fates. A few examples: "She had drifted away, into the oceanic depths of her own head, fallen asleep sitting there in lotus." (p. 359); aboard Ark One "Max Baker came swimming down." (p. 387), and "Then they came boiling up through the broken barrier . . . " (p. 395). Which is to say, everywhere is water, everywhere is transformation. There is no escape from endless change. We can build an Ark and leave the Flood behind, but the Flood will be with us—inside us—wherever we go.

Jonathan McCalmont lives in the United Kingdom, where he writes, teaches, and edits Fruitless Recursion.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters he was crazy enough to earn a BS in Theoretical Physics and study creative writing. His fiction has appeared in Atomjack Magazine, Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine, and Farrago's Wainscot. Alvaro's reviews of speculative fiction and poetry appear regularly at The Fix, and critical reviews and essays have also appeared in Fruitless Recursion and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. Visit him at his blog, Waiting for My Aineko.



Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is the co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, a Stellar Guild series team-up published by Phoenix Pick (Nov 2012). Alvaro has also published short fiction, reviews, essays, and interviews in a variety of markets. He is still, however, waiting for his Aineko.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in a wood in East Sussex. Twice shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction he writes mostly about film on his blog Ruthless Culture and mostly about science fiction as a regular columnist for the British science fiction magazine Interzone.
4 comments on “Ark by Stephen Baxter”

Nice review Alvaro... I think that the two pieces complement each other quite neatly, which is to say that you picked up on a lot of stuff I either ignored or failed to notice.
The role of religion in the book is quite an interesting one actually because while the book clearly mocks the idea that a religion-free crew will have less reasons for dispute, I think it's quite telling that the biggest near-catastrophe in the novel (aside from the Flooding of Earth) does actually take place because of a weird set of religious beliefs picked up by the young.
I took the point to be not that people will hate each other regardless of religion, but rather that you simply can't socially engineer with that degree of precision. Sure there was no religion to begin with but how do you stop it breaking out?

Matt Bright

Given that Stephen Baxter novels are generally gag-free, can we get an honourable mention for the laugh-out-loud meta moment when Zane, having suffered his psychotic break after turning on the warp drive, lists all the (physically accurate) reasons why it couldn’t possibly work?

*SPOILER WARNING*
Jonathan,
You're right; it's interesting how we both picked up on (mostly) different things. Guess that goes some way towards proving that ARK is a rich novel 🙂
Religion: Yes, it was naive of the social engineers to believe that not having a religious crew would lead to a problem-free mission. Also, agreed, it appears inevitable that religious belief would develop -- part of the adaptation needed in such a vastly different environment, perhaps.
I felt that religion was depicted in a consistently ambivalent way -- not necessarily having intrinsic value, but potentially being beneficial depending on how it was applied.
The violent fire that nearly destroys all is purifying, cleansing, even beautiful in a way; it serves to drive home a message and cause the ship's commander to completely re-evaluate command style, in a way that ultimately works; but it leaves behind ruin and destruction, and causes immense pain.
So perhaps another way to phrase the ambivalence is to say that Baxter is taking a long view on religion: it's a strategy with positive consequences but comes at an enormous cost. Finding the balance between the two seems something we're destined to attempt over and over, often ending in failure.

Matt, honorable mention it is! I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought that was darkly funny 🙂
Zane's logic was utterly convincing and, of course, completely wrong. Effective way for Baxter not only to be funny but also show how easily others could have been swayed by Zane's beliefs.

 

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