My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au
Analog Science Fiction and Fact was my magazine of choice as a teenager. Often it featured stories written by people who were primarily scientists and engineers rather than writers – people like Robert L Forward and Charles Sheffield. In those kinds of stories, characters, emotions, motivations and situations were only there to set up scenarios that could demonstrate the scientific theories the author wanted to explore.
Science fiction is pompously called the ‘fiction of ideas’, which rather ignores the fact that all fiction is about something. But the best of these idea stories were the ones that allowed the reader to pick up on the excitement and wonder of the scientific concepts they expounded. And, after all, if you’re reading science fiction, you should at least be a little bit interested in science.
Stephen Baxter’s new novel Proxima, the first book in a duology, reminded me a lot of those early Analog stories. Baxter is a mathematician and engineer, but since 1995 he’s made a living writing a number of successful SF series. And in Proxima he demonstrates that same desire to explain the wonder of the scientific concepts he imagines in his future solar system:
The intense radiation, intended originally to deliver compact solar power to the factories and homes of distant Earth, now filled her own hundred-metre sail body. She felt her skin stretch and billow as terawatts of power poured over her. It was not even necessary for her structure to be solid; her surface was a sparse mesh, a measure to reduce her overall density, but the wavelengths of microwave photons were so long that they could not pass through this wide, curving net of carbon struts. And the microwave photons, bouncing off the sail like so many minute sand grains, shoved her backwards, at thirty-six gravities, piling up an extra thousand kilometres per hour of velocity with each new second.
Baxter has chosen a canvas that stretches from Earth to the planet Proxima C four light years away and spans some 60 years; and the story, written in his accessible style, is very engaging. Yuri Eden is a corpsicle from the Heroic Generation who fought climate change on Earth. Defrosted on Mars, he’s soon press-ganged to join a group of unwilling settlers on a one-way trip to Proxima. The Kernel technology that drives the ship is not man-made, but was discovered buried under Mercury’s crust. Stef Kalinski witnessed the launch of the first Kernel ship when attending another launch of an automated Artificial Intelligence headed by much more conventional means on a survey mission to Prox C 11 years before. She decided then and there to become an expert in Kernel technology.
The arrival on Prox C of Yuri and his unhappy companions is at the same time distressing and amusing. As one of the characters says, ‘Everybody wants to be a pioneer, you see … Nobody wants to be a settler.’ This group don’t even want to be pioneers. They’ll be damned if they turn into farmers and breeders, and Baxter has a lot of fun showing their modern day reactions to what is really a future retelling of the forcible transportation of convicts to Australia.
John Synge said, ‘And what about the rights of those children? Who are you to condemn them, and their children, to lives of servitude on this dismal world — all to serve your ludicrous, Heroic Generation-type scheme of galactic dominance?’
Martha Pearson stood now. Yuri knew she came from old money on Hawaii; in her late thirties, she was tough, self-contained. ‘And what right do you have to condemn me and the other women here to live as baby machines?’
The main attraction, however, in this section of the story is the planet. Prox C is tidally-locked to its red-dwarf sun, so there is no day and night, no sunrise or sunset. And the biology and wildlife of the planet provide further shocks for the new inhabitants as they learn more and more about what has naturally evolved here in such an alien environment. Baxter also throws in quite a few surprises and reversals along the way, which keeps everyone entertained.
Meanwhile, back in the solar system, a political struggle is emerging between the Framework, the Chinese economic empire which does not have access to Kernel tech, and the United Nations. And when Kalinski discovers a metal hatch of alien origin deep beneath the Kernel deposit, things really take off, with political manoeuvrings, untrustworthy Artificial Intelligences, and the threat of interplanetary war.
In among all these events, the novel tackles a lot of big ideas, not only about the evolution and future of the indigenous and introduced inhabitants of Prox C, but about the origin of life in the universe, whether humanity can express itself in Artificial Intelligence and just what the creators of the Kernels have in mind for us all. If I have one criticism, it’s that in between expounding all these ideas, Baxter doesn’t demonstrate a tight enough control of plotting or character to make the story work as cohesively as it could. But at its heart, Proxima delivers a real sense of wonder about making a new life on another world that’s reminiscent of Frederick Pohl’s classic Jem. And that more than justifies the price of entry.
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