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Utterly superb - a masterpiece that I urge you to read
on 17 October 2013
Earth is in trouble, the centre (in a manner of speaking) of a solar system divided between the west and China. While China mines the resources of the asteroid belt and the more distant planets, the west colonises the closer planets. But when a new energy source is discovered on Mercury that permits interstellar travel the enormous opportunities that this grants to one faction are matched by the danger of the ensuing intensified cold war. Meanwhile, a ship full of rejects from Earth and Mars uses this new technology to reach Proxima Centauri, our nearest habitable planet, four light years away. Their goal is to settle the planet and do the necessary hard work of establishing a basic social infrastructure before others can ultimately join them to reap the benefits. Their main job, though, is to breed - to create new generations of human beings on a new Earth. To start all over again.
This is the goal and the dream but how different and harrowing is the reality.
Proxima Centauri, or Per Ardua as it is named by its reluctant, marooned first colonists, is a planet fixed on its axis, half always dark and the other half always light. It is also a volcanic world, susceptible to extreme weather patterns that can last for years. It is inhabited by a full spectrum of flying, swimming, walking creatures, all stem-like. They manage the environment as our colonists must also learn to do. The first half of the novel focuses in wonderful, leisurely detail on the trials of settling this planet by small groups of men and women, cast out from Earth, abandoned and forced together. In particular, we follow Yuri Eden, Mardina and their robot help ColU. I could have read many more hundreds of pages on this group and their interaction with the local animals and this fascinating planet. In some ways, I was reminded of Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, one of my most memorable reads of 2012. I was similarly engrossed by the details and feel of this alien world.
But there is even more to Proxima than this. There is a heroine in the story and she is Stef Kalinski. Stef becomes an ambassador of sorts, working to bridge the gap between the opposing factions on earth while also exploring the origins of the mysterious energy source on Mercury. It is she who is first to discover one of the great secrets of our existence. What she discovers is mindblowing. But just as intriguing as her role in the present and future of the story, is Stef's background. She was there when her father launched a vessel travelling by more traditional means to Proxima Centauri, many years before. The tale of this starship Angelia is not something I will forget. Again, I would have read a novel on this alone.
The relationship between Earth and Per Ardua is complicated, made more so by the distance between them. But even while Per Ardua seems such a distant, unpopulated planet, it becomes frighteningly apparent that the dangers facing Earth won't stay far away forever. The tension builds as the Galaxy appears to almost contract with the danger facing it.
Proxima is a novel that almost overflows with wonders. It contains not just one story but several. It takes place on Proxima Centauri but also on Earth, Mercury and in the distant asteroid mining settlements. The lives we encounter over a considerable number of years become increasingly important to the reader. Looming over all the personal tales of hardship and endeavour and love is the terrifying cold shadow of potential war between east and west which, if it comes to pass, could mean nothing less than the extinction of the human race.
I am a big fan of Stephen Baxter and have been reading him for years. I was, then, expecting to enjoy Proxima, a novel I've looked forward to for quite a while, but I was not expecting to be as blown away by it as I was. As we approach the latter months of the year, if I read another novel in 2013 that makes and leaves such a powerful impression on me, I will be most surprised. When I finished it, I was left in awe of Baxter's skill in weaving the strands of Proxima together.
The writing is elegant, informative, exact and visionary. It has scenes that took this reader's breath away. The characters are always interesting - even the original AIs and especially the ColU robotic unit. Proxima is so full of surprises that it never releases its grip. It is packed with `wow' moments and there are other moments which made me weep with how perfect or profound they felt to me. This was not an emotion-free reading experience. I can only urge you to read it so that you discover this for yourself. Proxima is a masterpiece.