Friday, 26 March 2010

Ark - Stephen Baxter

After a productive day off, I have just finished reading Ark, which is the sequel to Flood which I read in Febuary, and all I can say is what a journey!

At this point, please imagine me with beard, pipe and possibly a parrot on my shoulder saying (in a very authentic nautical manner) whilst pointing "Argggghh. Thar be spoilers ahead" and consider that to be due warning if you have not read Flood. Not too many give-aways but enough to perhaps spoil some of the suspense of the previous book...

From the blurb: "As the waters rose, high in the Colorado mountains the US government was building an ark. Not an ark to ride the waves but an ark that would take a select few hundred people out into space to start a new future for mankind. Sent out into deep space on an epic journey centuries, generations of crew members carry the hope of a new beginning on a new, incredibly distant, planet. But as the decades pass knowledge and purpose is lost and division and madness grows. And back on earth life, and man, find a new way."

So. To quickly recap. In the previous book the water level steadily rises and, as the earth is gradually covered, humanity struggles to adapt and survive. At the start of Ark, the water level is rising and the earth is gradually covered...and do you know what? It really didn't feel like I was covering old ground. Which is pretty impressive as there was a lot of ground covered in Flood (Those last words were not supposed to be a joke but now I read it I think I'll pretend it was intentional) and the impact of the rising water level was covered extensively in that book on both an individual and epic level.

The first third of this book largely follow a similar formula in that we see events on Earth through the eyes of several individuals (only a few of whom also appear in Flood) as the flood waters rise. Hinted at in the first book, these are the people who are directly involved in one of the handful of desperate plans that are in motion to try to save the wealthiest, or most influential, people left on the planet.

What makes it different is that we’re following the Candidates for a place in the Ark which, as can probably be gathered from the blurb, is the attempt to build a spaceship that can take a (genetically diverse) chosen few to another habitable planet in an attempt to ensure the survival of humanity. I rather liked the different perspective as here we are viewing the Flood through the eyes of characters who are insulated from the fight for survival that much of the human race is facing which means that all we see here is their reaction to witnessing events that actually happen largely to other people.

What I found most interesting about this book was the, very pessimistic, exploration of how society might develop under extreme pressure. I do have to say that Baxter paints a rather bleak view of life in claustrophobic living conditions with a small circle of other people – most of whom have been or are competing against each other for survival. At heart, it seemed to me that this is a book about the inability of people to get along and “play nicely” no matter what the stakes. Repeatedly self-government turned into despotic dictatorship and people (mainly men) seem to do some very awful things to other people that

I do have a couple of plot gripes – for example with so much emphasis being placed on the importance of selecting a genetically diverse crew why train up a crew of equal male and females? Surely it would be easier to fill a freezer with sperm and give a female crew some turkey basters? In crew training, there also seemed to be a focus on specialisation over diversification which didn’t feel very risk-averse to me but probably only there to assure some of the more interesting characters places on the programme! I am so picky.

Despite those grumbles I liked this book more than Flood - the story did absolutely need this second book and it was a great end to the duology.

I've found it really hard to write anything about this reading experience that doesn't give away too much plot so for a proper review I am going to direct you towards Thea from The Book Smugglers. I think it's safe to say that she's a fan - this book was her top read of 2009. I also really enjoyed this dual review from Strange Horizons which is well worth a read.

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