“Ark” is the sequel to Baxter’s “Flood”, reviewed here a few days ago. This is a real doorstep of a book, as science fiction often is, which picks up the story several years before “Flood” ends. The central theme – a space rocket takes survivors to another world to avoid the apocalyptic flooding of earth – had already been heavily trailled in “Flood”, and Baxter covers some familiar ground in opening, presumably for the benefit of readers who hadn’t read the previous novel. (Incidentally, JK Rowling was a master of this – she always got the “what you missed” section out of the way early in the Potter novels, with considerable economy – although towards the end of the series she stopped bothering, on the grounds if you didn’t know Harry was a wizard etc then you had been living in a hole in the ground for the last five years. Anyway, back to “Ark”).
“Ark” has a very similar construction to “Flood” – short chapters following a large group of characters, with a few individuals at the core; occasional significant time jumps; a tendency to somewhat casually kill people off and usher in new generations quite regularly. In fact this is probably best seen as a mirror novel of “Flood” with the only significant different being the terrain – space instead of earth and water.
Baxter indulges himself with a leisurely account of the early days of the flooded earth space programme, constantly threatened by the rising water and the human tide which accompanies it. The group of Candidates being trained to undertake the flight are examined closely, although I felt that the time jumps and the sudden deaths made it harder to care about any of them. Zane, the most vulnerable, was unconvincing – someone with his vulnerabilities and weaknesses would be unlikely to have passed the various vetting processes.
I think we all know without spending too much time considering the issue that long months and years in deep space would be terribly boring, and it is a challenge to the author to make them seem less so. He can fast forward decades in a page but we still return to the same setting with the same crew (give or take) and the same set of issues.
After ten years the crew reach Earth 2, which despite its flora and fauna and evidence of advanced intelligence is considered by most to be uninhabitable – leading to a three way split between them – some try to settle Earth 2, others decide to return to Earth, hoping that the waters had receded (they hadn’t!) and a third group vote to push on another unimaginable 30 years to a possible Earth 3. I would have liked to hear more about what happened on Earth 2, but this group is not mentioned again. The group that returns to Earth find Ark 2, an unlikely underwater settlement, but the main focus is on the group that travels on to Earth 3, giving us a lot more of the same. Planet fall, when it comes, is almost as much a relief for the reader as it must have been for the passengers.
I have no evidence for this, as usual, but my hunch is that what really interests Baxter is the speculative science behind inter-stellar travel, colonisation of new planets, etc, and the plot and characters in this novel as simply window-dressing around this core. Which isn’t really good enough is it?