BRIEF SYNOPSIS: As Earth becomes covered by the ever-rising oceans, a project is launched to save mankind from extinction by sending a group of young people to colonize a faraway planet.
PROS: Significant sense of wonder; interesting mini-dramas play out against the longer story arc.
CONS: Suspension of disbelief issues rooted in the bleak world so wonderfully drawn in the preceding novel.
BOTTOM LINE: While not bad, Ark is not nearly as enjoyable as Flood was.
Stephen Baxter’s Ark is the second book of the duology that began with Flood. And if Flood was grounded in the desperation of the ensuing apocalypse, Ark is a story anchored in hope.
Many of the events that take place in Ark occur in the same years as those in Flood. That is, instead of being a sequel that picks up where Flood left off, Ark begins while the world is still coming to terms with the planet-changing event that is unfolding around them. The Earth’s oceans are rising further and further, encroaching on the land as people scurry to higher ground for survival. As this is happening offstage (and wonderfully detailed in Flood), the focus of the book is on a young group of select individuals who are being trained for mankind’s first planetary colonization mission, thanks to the influence of a secret consortium of the rich and powerful. Most of the trainees are children as the story begins, and Ark follows their journey towards the stars over a span of more than five decades.
In one sense, the novel is a throwback to the hard science fiction of yesteryear where mankind is overcoming the incredible task of reaching the stars. There’s sense of wonder in that idea and Baxter pulls that part off wonderfully. He also maintains the light-handed delivery of Biblical analogies from the previous book. But problems of believability arise because this huge task of reaching another star system is set on our rapidly dying world. First, the secret consortium, while resourceful, does not seem anywhere near capable of building a realistically working spaceship. It isn’t until the government/military steps in that the project has any hope of succeeding, and even then it’s hard to believe that the necessary technologies can be explored as the world around them is falling apart; especially as conditions are becoming more and more desperate. Some of the equipment used to test a newly-designed warp bubble, for example, seems very specific and very unique, yet it was all able to be mobilized and brought together for this project. Add to that the dwindling scarcity of essential resources and it seems like the project team was very lucky. Unbelievably so.
Suspension of disbelief becomes even more endangered when you consider the precariousness of space travel itself. When you think of how a simple o-ring malfunction can cause the most extreme of tragedies, it’s hard to believe that a ship can continue undeterred (and decades longer than originally planned) amidst calamities like fire, upheaval caused by mutinies and murder, and an essential-but-schizophrenic crew member who is in serious need of mental care. To be sure, these events do provide some level of drama, but their inclusion is delivered in such episodic fashion — I believe this a fix-up novel – that it undermines the continuity of the longer story arc: to save the human race from extinction. (And to be truly fair, this reaction could also be partially caused by the amount of contiguous time I had, or rather didn’t have, to devote to the book.)
While there is a sustainable sense of wonder in Ark, the sense of doom so beautifully portrayed in Flood ultimately undercuts the believability of the story. Given how enjoyable Flood was, Ark, while not bad, was something of a letdown by comparison.