From SFX #240.
Author: Stephen Baxter
Per Ardua Ad Astra
A book about a risky colony mission to a tidally locked planet. No, we’re not talking about Crash (by some bloke called Guy Haley), but Proxima, Stephen Baxter’s latest. Inspired by the same bit of science as Crash – the discovery of exoplanets all over the galaxy – it’s fascinating to see another writer’s take on similar subject matter.
Protagonist Yuri is an out-of-time remnant of “The Heroic Generation”, whose energy intensive geo-engineering efforts to sort out global warming caused more problems than it solved. Popped into cryo-stasis by parents hoping for a better future, he wakes up into a world that resents him for his association with the disastrous past. He’s not treated well, and that includes being shipped off on the dodgy, bare-bones colony effort to the Alpha Centauri multiple star system. His struggle to remain alive, and the mysteries he uncovers on the way, form one of the novel’s two major strands. The other strand takes place in the Solar System, where the cold war between the expansionist Chinese Empire and the constituent countries of the United Nations is hotting up. Alien artefacts have been discovered on Mercury, and the UN isn’t sharing.
It’s not often you can agree with the hyperbole on the back of a book, but calling Baxter Arthur C. Clarke’s natural successor is bang on the money. Clarkian tropes such as mysterious extra-terrestrial leavings, deep time and the sinister majesty of the cosmos are greatly in evidence here. Baxter takes a worthwhile chunk of time detailing a fascinating planetary ecology for “Per Ardua” as the colonists end up calling their world. This is ingeniously alien, and includes a banded series of biospheres. Rather than possessing cells like Earth life, the creatures of Per Ardua are made of much larger, interchangeable “stems” with the result that they behave somewhat like predatory Lego, brutally disassembling one another and using the parts to create their own young. The depth and ingenuity of this part of the tale has one thinking of Clarke’s efforts in Rendezvous With Rama. Similarly well set out are Baxter’s various modes of space travel, which include a multi-year colony mission, a one man cosmic dash, and an interesting take on interstellar sailing, where the vessel contains tens of thousands of disposable sails, each invested with its own consciousness.
Baxter’s specialty is hard hard SF (and he’s very good at it). The flipside of this is that we’ve occasionally found his characters remote, and although those in Proxima are mostly well rounded, there is a fair bit of “as you know, Bob,” expository dialogue towards the beginning of the novel; the Australian billionaire Sir Michael King being particularly guilty of this. Having said that, this is only Baxter’s solution to a particular problem in writing hard SF – how do you convey to the reader the science and history of your future era? There are other solutions, all equally as flawed. This is simply the one Baxter favours, it’s just not our preference.
Despite the Baxter’s hard SF bias, he’s always been invested in the human side of things, and a large part of Proxima is concerned with stresses climate change will place on geopolitics, the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the flexible morality people require to survive in difficult circumstances.
There’s a lot more in Proxima besides – alternate realities, wormholes, Teilhardian galactic consciousnesses, and a couple of mysteries set up for the next book on both human and cosmological scales. That’s right, this is number one of two, but we’re sufficiently hooked to come back for more. Classic Baxter.