Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Ark, by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter
Roc: 2010

Damn, I’ve been meaning to write about this book for a while now. Ark is Stephen Baxter’s quasi-sequel to his excellent novel Flood (review). I say “quasi-sequel” because much of Ark runs concurrent to the events of Flood, just in different locations. There is some overlap with characters and major events, but not from the same perspectives.

The premise of Flood, if not guessed from the title, is that for whatever reason the ocean waters begin to rise and rise and rise above their current levels. Now, this may spoil some of the events of Flood, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, please put this blog post down and run, don’t walk, to the nearest copy of Flood and start reading immediately. It’s a wonderful book, so I won’t blame you. Just come back when you’re done. Okay. Now that you’re back, don’t care if you’re going to be spoiled, or are comfortable with a brief refresher, let’s move on. Flood is a novel of a global catastrophe on a scale that boggles the mind if people not named Stephen Baxter think about it for too long. The central cast of characters of Flood are focused on survival for themselves and for a remnant of humanity – on something called Ark Three, which can be described in the grossest of terms as a “giant raft” – a way to survive on the surface of the ocean when there is no land left. Can it be built? Will it work? The novel answers both.

As can be guessed by its name, Ark Three is one of a number of projects to save as many people as possible (a “select” many people, but people all the same). What about Ark One and Two?

Ark, the novel, is the story of the building, training, and mission of Ark One – a mission of sending a colony to the stars, so that even if life is extinguished on Earth, humanity will survive somewhere.

Ark features and references many of the same characters of Flood, but shifts the focus differently. Characters who stay behind on Earth, like Lily Brooke and Thandie Jones are not major players here. They are referenced by the children, like Grace, but the novel focuses more on the next generation – the would-be crew of Ark One.

Also, Ark prominently features the actual space mission and that lends a very different tenor to the novel.

So, while Ark could arguably be described as the sequel to Flood, it is more thematically a sister novel. Ark deals with much of the same stuff, the same issues, fears, and hopes, but it does so differently. Stephen Baxter understands that the initial discovery and wonder of how high the sea will rise and what it means for humanity just isn’t there this time around. Readers know what happens to the world and to the characters. Baxter plays with that sense of inevitability and doom that hangs over Earth and shows what else was happening, what other events were occurring that demonstrate humanity’s capacity for survival. The story of Ark is in the quiet moments during global destruction.

In a very real sense, Flood and Ark are hopeful novels. The promise implicit in Baxter’s story is that humanity will ever strive to survive as a species, and even in the most impossible conditions that have eliminated so much life, a remnant will adapt and survive and find a new way to persevere. Ultimately, it is a beautiful sentiment if one can get past the billions who have perished.

Though it is a very different sort of novel from the excellent Flood, Ark is a very welcome and able companion novel.  Ark does not have the same sort of awestruck wonder at the looming and encroaching disaster, but it is moving and wonderful all the same.

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