Proxima

Posted: February 24, 2017 in Book reviews, science fiction
Tags:

By Stephen Baxter

proxima

In the late 22nd Century mankind has begun to colonise the solar system, but also has its sights set on the nearby dwarf star of Proxima, or more specifically a planet orbiting the star, Prox-C. On Mercury two ships are launched, one is an artificially intelligent solar sail, bound for Prox-C, the other is a more prosaic craft, powered by ‘kernels’, mysterious sources of energy discovered beneath the surface of Mercury.

A few years later and Yuri Eden, a relic of the 21st Century’s ‘Heroic Generation’ defrosted on Mars where he’s treated as a criminal, is gathered up along with a number of other undesirables and placed in a kernel powered UN transport ship heading towards Proxima. Once there the passengers are shuttled down to the planet’s surface. Split into groups they’re advised that they are the colonists who will claim the planet before the Chinese can. Left to fend for themselves Yuri and his group face all manner of challenges, not least their own petty squabbles.

Meanwhile the solar system is divided by a new Cold War, between the Chinese and the UN. Each side is distrustful of the other, and the UN’s refusal to allow the Chinese access to kernel research is just another added point of contention.

When a mysterious artefact is discovered on Mercury alongside the kernels, there is the promise of a new form of travel that will make the UN’s hulk ships obsolete, but as tensions begin to increase can diplomacy prevent the Cold War between the Chinese and the UN from turning hot, and just how is Mercury connected with Prox-C?

 

Baxter is a science fiction writer of long standing, and sits more towards the hard end of the sci-fi spectrum, although he has a knack for explaining big concepts in an understandable way. Proxima is a curious book in many ways. There’s a neat idea at the heart of it, in fact there are probably three neat ideas at play here, the trouble is that whilst they all intersect at times, they still don’t seem that interconnected and all could do with fleshing out. Of course what I didn’t realise until after I finished the book was that this was the first in a series. This isn’t made clear in the blurb on the back of the book. I’m not saying it’d have put me off, but it might have made me more forgiving when my interest dipped.

Maybe.

Of the three elements, the bits dealing with Yuri and his fellow colonists is perhaps the most interesting. Baxter has clearly put a lot of effort into his world building, and Prox-C feels like a genuine place. The logic of dropping undesirables on the planet to fend for themselves obviously has some resonance with Earth history (think Australia) but also feels a little bit of a logical stretch.

Still, the battle to survive on a planet where the sun never sets is intriguing, especially once Yuri’s group encounter the native life forms, and other groups of colonists. The trouble is that even here Baxter’s focus seems to waver, and the pacing of the book is erratic to say the least. He’ll spend several chapters dealing with a single event, then skip over years and multiple milestones in the space of a paragraph. It’s a trifle jarring. It’s as if he couldn’t decide whether to write an intimate account of brave pioneers, or a sweeping epic spanning decades, so in the end decided to do both.

The other storylines are less engaging. The kernels are intriguing initially, as is the artefact on Mercury, but various threads of the story just don’t tie together, in fact in the latter stages of the book the narrative just seems to meander. Maybe Baxter was setting things up for the next book, but I couldn’t help feeling that he just wasn’t sure where to take his story.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters are a trifle bland (often a criticism of Baxter’s writing). Yuri has potential, and is probably the most interesting human character, but his backstory is too sketchy. The Heroic Generation is namechecked, and it’s implied they did terrible things, but we never get more than a brief idea of what these things were. We’re told early on that Yuri Eden isn’t his real name, but this plot point is left dangling for far too long (and when it is addressed it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, and in fact I’ve read a few reviews where readers did just that.) There are several other elements of the story jettisoned early on which don’t reappear till near the end when you’ve almost forgotten about them.

Mardina Jones verges on three dimensions, but she sadly fades out of the story late on. Kernel expert Stephanie Kalinski is never quite feels real, and Australian businessman Michael King is only there to drive the plot on occasion, similarly the smug AI Earthshine.

It’s slightly worrying when the most interesting character in the book is ColU, a sentient robot dumped on Prox-C with Yuri, but it really is, and of all the characters it’s the one you’ll probably most warm too.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. Baxter is a talented writer, and I was rarely bored, just annoyed when the story meandered off on yet another tangent, and the ending provides a WTF moment you won’t see coming, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing; for some reason Baxter seems to be leading the book towards the territory of the Long Earth series he wrote with Terry Pratchett.

An interesting book rather than a great one, I’d say it’s worth a read, if only for the Prox-C segments, just don’t be surprised if you feel a slight lack of satisfaction at the end.

 

Advertisements
Comments
  1. I’ve never actually read any Baxter, though Pete seems to enjoy his stuff. With so much to read, I don’t think I’ll be picking up this one. (Currently I’m reading the ‘Temeraire’ series – it’s like Hornblower with Dragons!)

    • starkers70 says:

      When he’s good he’s very good but he can be a little cold. On at least one occasion I’ve given up on one of his novels–which is not something I do v often.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s