Top positive review
3 people found this helpful
Stands Alone as a Masterpiece of Hard Sci-Fi
on 27 August 2014
I feel I should preface this review by explaining that I've read Ark without first having read Flood, or any of Stephen Baxter's previous works. I note from other reviewers' comments that there is considerable overlap with Flood, as well as repetition of themes from Baxter's previous novels, such that long-time readers may find little new here. As a newcomer to Baxter's writing, however, I found this a magnificent, richly satisfying work of hard science fiction.
In the near future, Earth is being slowly drowned by the release of subterranean reserves of water. As society crumbles, a cabal of world leaders and billionaire businessmen set about trying to ensure the future of humanity by launching an interstellar mission to colonise an earthlike exoplanet. Viewing the end of the world through the eyes of numerous protagonists, and ultimately covering decades of time, Ark sets out to be an epic. In my view, it succeeds.
Despite its premise, Ark's first half is confined to terra firma. Detailing the inception of the mission and its progress through the slow-motion apocalypse unfolding outside, readers of Flood may this portion of the novel repetitive. The Ark Project is a fascinating one to follow, however, mixing intriguing engineering and tales of individual brilliance and folly with a cold-eyed view of the compromises and sacrifices which would inevitably befall such a resource-hungry undertaking in an environment of desperate scarcity. One of Baxter's greatest achievements in Ark is to portray the tragic consequences of individual selfishness or hurried decisions, sometimes reverberating down the decades.
The second half of Ark is less measured, and more closely resembles the interstellar adventure readers may have been hoping for when they bought the novel. The Ark's confined spaces provide a more intimate environment for the protagonists to scheme and bicker; sometimes with terrible results for the mission as a whole. Baxter is unsentimental in his portrayal of human nature; never more so than the gut-punch of the book's downbeat ending. Whilst the plot is compelling, and maintains a focus on its characters' emotional arcs, there is little doubt that the science is the star of the show. The unfolding environmental catastrophe gives Baxter the opportunity to explore fascinating concepts in climatology and sociology rarely covered in SF. One the Ark launches, he throws some fascinating material on exoplanet astronomy into the melting pot.
Ark is a fine tale of noble endeavor and resourcefulness in the face of adversity, elevated to greatness by its wonderful depth, fascinating central concepts and an eye for the less admirable aspects of human nature. That said, some of the usual cautions for SF apply, including broad-brush characterisation and a slightly analytical, even misanthropic bent. Several plot threads are also left dangling at the book's conclusion, and the downer ending may not please everyone. Nevertheless, I found this one of the most rewarding works of hard SF I've read in a long time, and it comes highly recommended to all genre fans.