Sunday, 5 December 2010

Disaster novel

Reflecting on the books that I've written up here (virtually everything I've read since 2007), I sometimes suspect that I give things the benefit of the doubt too much, since I seem to not dislike anything, and to find good parts in everything I've read. Too polite? Too unwilling to consciously concede that I've wasted many hours on a stinker? Anyway, on this occasion, going the other way has been made very easy for me, since today's book, Ark, is a disaster novel (in more than one sense) by the British science fiction writer Stephen Baxter.

Set in the near-future, the novel takes place amidst an Earth struggling with sea level rise of a degree unimagined by today's climate scientists. Reservoirs of water within the Earth's mantle have been breeched, and the Earth is steadily being swamped by an unceasing rise in seawater that shows no sign of abatement. Confronted by projections of the total loss of land, and straining as civilisation is dissipating in the face of mass migration and dwindling resources, the remnant of the US government takes over an originally clandestine project to allow a small population to escape the Earth aboard a generation ship. The novel follows a handful of characters who become directly or indirectly involved in this effort, some of whom make the journey from the Earth to two neighbouring stars. But along the way their commitment to the project is constantly assailed, and their humanity is eroded in the face of an unprecedented disaster that forces choices that are similarly unprecedented.

Where to start? The novel puts so many feet wrong, it's got to be a centipede. Firstly, in the opening pages it sets itself up some sort of murder mystery, giving the reader a victim, an array of suspects, and an investigator to sort things out. The novel then jumps backwards a number of years to introduce the suspects and how they've got to this position, but despite the passage of many pages barely touches the murder before -when it finally catches back up to the start of the novel- solving it in a flash. A flash of "who cares?" by this point, as it happens. This initial wrong-footing sets the novel up nicely for a litany of disappointments.

Another great misstep is how Baxter handles the technological innovation that allows the interstellar journey that makes up a big chunk of the book. After much angst among (cardboard) characters about how infeasible such a voyage is, one character makes a fatuous observation about FTL travel that makes almost no sense (something about spacetime "bubbles"?), only for another "genius" character to pick it up and, again in a flash, suddenly come up with a barely explained solution. The absurdity of Baxter's writing here is revealed in all its glory when, in devising a method for getting the spaceship off Earth, he resorts to a lengthy exposition of a technology that really has been investigated, Project Orion. Cue much shoe-horning in of author research - on a subject that actually is genuinely interesting. Coming from an author venerated for "hard science fiction", this glossing over of a core aspect seems plain lazy.

The biggest crimes committed by Baxter lie with the characters that populate the novel. For one, they're largely the implausibly over-qualified scientist-leaders that have despoiled lesser science fiction novels for decades (cf. Ender's Game). And as the novel progresses they become both progressively more implausible while simultaneously less and less likeable. In part, taking the premise of the novel seriously for a moment, this is to be expected given the situation that they're thrown into, one could possibly even make the case that it's realistic. But the evolution of the characters felt pretty inexpert to me, with far too many eyebrow-raising daddy-issues being bandied about by Baxter. While, yes, I think it's important (and realistic!) that science fiction takes strong female characters seriously, Baxter's efforts here aren't doing the genre many favours.

In some respects, this aspect of Ark is a bit of throwback to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke started bludgeoning emotional responses and motivations into their otherwise two-dimensional characters. This wasn't a bad idea in principle, since science fiction is widely, and usually rightly, chastised for the lack of development of characters that appear in it. Largely this isn't a problem, or shouldn't be, since the point of science fiction is usually to explore technological "what-if" situations rather than dwell on the inner lives of characters. However, even so, as practised by the likes of Clarke, this approach led to the worst novels in his career, and managed to even turn epics such as Rendezvous with Rama (see also here) into awful soap opera-esque nonsense. As it happens, Baxter collaborated with Clarke on three books shortly before the latter's death. I haven't read them (nor am ever likely to now), but if they stick to the pattern of other late-period collaborative novels by Clarke, this might explain a lot about Ark.

One of the most annoying aspects of this débâcle of a novel is that I used to really like Baxter. Years ago he had a series of stories and novels based around the Xeelee, an alien civilisation vastly more advanced than humanity. Though they appear uninterested in humans, and never even formally reveal themselves to them, they are nonetheless perceived as a threat, and fought with for countless millennia. Eventually, humans finally work out that the disinterest shown by the Xeelee towards them is because they are actually engaged in a battle for the survival of the universe, one far more important than the petty territorial squabbles mounted by humanity. As a science fiction-clad metaphor for the cosmic indifference of the universe for people, the Xeelee rocked. So reading Ark has been a gravely disappointing experience for me, and one that'll likely keep him off my book shelves for good.

No comments: