“If the answer’s not the one you want, maybe you’re asking the wrong question.” So says Patrick Groundwater, one of the multi-billionaire founders of the Ark One project. His mantra is taken up by others during the development of the spaceship that Patrick and his compatriots hope will offer some of humanity – specifically, their children – an escape route from a drowning Earth. Patrick’s daughter Holle, in fact, uses the principle to ask the question that leads to an essential technological breakthrough. A reader, meanwhile, faced with the answer that is Ark, might struggle to find the right question. It’s not the question that ended the book’s predecessor, Flood – “What is Ark Two?” – since although that question is answered, Ark’s primary focus is Ark One. Yet nor is the question as simple as, say, “what happened next?”
For quite a long time, in fact, the question appears to be “what happened elsewhere?” Flood made it clear that, beyond the launch of Nathan Lammockson’s absurd ocean-going Ark, other projects were afoot to save some remnants of humanity from the inexorably rising waters, and indeed, one of Flood’s rescued-hostage protagonists, Lily Brooke, handed over the daughter of a friend to the Ark One project specifically. Ark reprises that scene for its opening, from the point of view of the daughter, Grace Grey, but then, rather than taking off at a tangent to its predecessor, the novel flashes back to 2025 – not too long after the start of Flood – to spend 200 pages detailing the preparation of the ship and its crew. This can feel a little familiar. There is not, for example, much room within the chronology of the flood for different kinds of stories than the ones Flood covered, with the result that Ark necessarily recapitulates some of Flood’s key notions (most notably the destabilising effect of the steadily increasing flow of refugees from drowned areas into any remaining sanctuary) and partakes of the same urgent tone.
And in the context of Baxter’s work as a whole, even the foreground is not as new as it first appears. In place of Flood’s adult characters, harried from place to place, Baxter here focuses on a group of children growing up in the closest thing to a safe haven left in America during this period. But the sun around which their lives orbit is the Ark: that one of the children sits around reading Heinlein and Niven points to the tradition this novel is in dialogue with, I think. Ark is an Engineering Project novel, and bears plenty of comparison to, say, Voyage (1997), or perhaps more significantly, given the apocalyptic context, Titan (1998). It’s a more American sort of novel than Baxter has written for a while – certainly more American than Flood, which was, for all its ostensible globe-trotting, unashamedly a very British apocalypse; here, a President frames the Ark project, and survival, as part of America’s Manifest Destiny. At the same time, this is not to say that Ark is hard sf, and in fact it comes complete with an honest-to-god Star Trek-style warp drive, to carry the Ark along in a bubble of spacetime, and enable the plot to be completed within a single lifespan. But its themes are familiar from the earlier novels — the tensions between military and civilian interests, and between science and politics as a necessary cost of any large-scale space effort; the intense training programmes, which are in a significant sense literally inhuman, and which unignorably deform the humans who pass through them.
Ark can be a sternly utilitarian novel. To fuel their project, for instance, the masters of the Ark trawl the pool of refugees – “It’s astounding the talent you can filter out of the flood of displaced” (34) – and those who get picked up in such drags, such as the engineer Liu Zheng, are under no illusions about their position. “You’re more than a commodity,” Patrick tries to tell him. “More than a set of skills.” Zheng’s reply is chilling in its bluntness: “Am I? None of us is anything without land, Mr Groundwater” (40). Much is also made of the motivating power of a central mission, of not so much the potential of humans working as part of something grander than themselves, but – once again – the necessity for it. “We are not looking for the outstanding individual,” Holle Groundwater is told. “We are looking for a crew” (63). As with Zheng, the emphasis is on individuals demonstrating their value: Holle, aged six when we meet her and in her early twenties when launch day finally comes, is our primary viewpoint in this section of the novel, but it’s by no means certain that she will last the course. We stay with her as the Ark project is taken over by the rump of the US government, as the somewhat casual but relentlessly intellectual training programme is replaced with something more sternly militaristic, as knowledge of the project becomes public and she and her peers become the last celebrities – but also as people she has trained with her whole life are gradually winnowed out of the crew selection process. The psychological consequences of such a life are, it seems, inevitable.
Jonathan McCalmont’s review of Ark argues that its essential familiarity should be balanced against Baxter’s “seemingly ever-increasing control” over his material. There is something to this. Without question, many parts of the novel are vivid. A shuttle-crash training mission is interrupted by an incursion of “eye-dees” – the refugees not authorised to enter the polder – who are scared off when one candidate, Don, starts cold-bloodedly shooting them down. And there’s a good, if brief (probably too brief) interlude in which Holle experiences life beyond the walls of the project, as one of the faceless millions of refugees. And if much of Ark’s first half feels mechanical – as in the murder-mystery plot that, when the long flashback is over, seems to have been inserted only to give Grace a narrative excuse to get to know the main Candidates – well, you might say, Baxter is often a mechanistic writer, deliberately so, and in his best novels that suits the material he’s working with. In Flood, the plot is as remorseless as the rising water, and the most notable achievement of Ark’s first half, perhaps, is to convey a sense of the mundanity of the Ark project, its fundamental grubbiness. We’re told that “The Ark was an expression of dreams, as much as logic” (83), but for 200 pages, even as the story sweeps towards the launch, and the flight plan becomes ever more delightfully unlikely, that dream is mired in much of the worst of petty humanity.
I’m less convinced by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro’s argument that the paralleling allows for a satisfying “aesthetic of symmetry”. Indeed, between the recapitulation of Flood and the echoes of the “NASA trilogy”, the questions the first half of Ark answers seem to me to be rather unsatisfying ones, to the point that when launch finally comes – in frantic, well-described scenes, although ones that are again reminiscent of earlier Baxter, in this case the novella Mayflower II (2004) – and the Ark soars free, it might be a blessed relief.
He deliberately steadied his breathing. He turned, looking back the way he had come. And there were Earth and moon, hanging in space, visible now that the pusher plate eclipsed the sun. […] He held up his thumb, and was able to cover both of the twin worlds. In the first few days, as they had looked back at the receding home planet, they had all been shocked by how little land remained. Even Colorado, which had seemed so extensive when they were down there living on it, was only a scatter of muddy islands, threatened by the huge curdled semi-permanent storms that stalked the ocean world. But from here he could see no detail.
They had already come so far. (203)
Characters in Stephen Baxter novels are fond of remarking on how poorly humans, as a species that evolved on African plains, are adapted to life in space. But I think there is a sense in which humans-in-space is a natural focus for Stephen Baxter’s writing. The sparseness and directness of his style captures something of the all-alone-in-the-night situation of an ape on an interstellar voyage: takes the shock experienced by Wilson Argent in the above quote and makes the reader feel it as well. And the dysfunctions of Baxter’s characters – which loom as large in Ark as they ever have – seem an appropriate response to the vast concepts those apes must wrestle with. Jokes about shits-in-space aside (although, somewhat surprisingly, I don’t recall a single space-toilet scene in Ark), I can’t think of another contemporary sf writer who can so compellingly describe, as Jonathan puts it in his review, a sense of alienation in an empty universe. “They had already come so far”; but they have a very long way to go.
Which is to say that no, of course the launch doesn’t offer any relief. Not for nothing do the characters speculate that what they’ve built is merely “a prison in space” (276). The claustrophobic, crisis-riven atmosphere of much of the second-half of Ark is in an important sense merely an intensification of the atmosphere of its first half — the “bubble of safety” (60) that Holle recognises she grew up in becoming a literal bubble, the seeming-impossibility of the warp bubble shooting them off to the stars. No wonder that they turn inward, huddle inside the two counterbalanced hulls of the Ark (Seba and Halivah, named, we are told, for great-grandsons of Noah, though “Havilah” is consistently misspelled). What is in some undeniably literal ways “a whole new experiment in human affairs” (261) is, in other ways, the same-old same-old. Factions spring up in the aftermath of the chaotic launch – gatecrashers, illegals, Candidates – which quickly harden into prejudices and, crammed into the volume of three jumbo jets, the eighty or so crew find themselves frequently at loggerheads.
The hundred pages or so documenting the Ark’s journey to “Earth II” are the best of Ark, and in many ways the best of Baxter. Along with Holle, and Grace, the most prominent crew members are Kelly Kenzie, their captain – or, as she designates herself once their journey is properly underway, with what Holle considers to be utopian optimism, “speaker” – and Venus Jennings, the sf-reader I mentioned earlier, in charge of the ship’s navigation and astronomical observation. The narrative is episodic, designed to allow us to get to know the crew in their new habitat. Baxter takes us though a day in the life of the Ark in mid-journey, from Holle’s point of view: a search for a missing child, how the senior crew deal with the seductions of virtual reality “headspace”, how they plan for crew expansion (that is: having more children), the shipboard games they play and laws they develop. And he gives us striking set-pieces, such as a fire that leads to an emergency separation of the hulls. Scattered debris sparkles prettily against the brutal walls of the warp bubble. The grip of necessity, already strong in the first half of the novel, tightens here, becoming Cold Equations bullishness. When they reach Earth II, after the best part of a decade’s travel, and find it less than the brochure seemed to promise, there is the clearest sense anywhere in the book of the most interesting question Ark answers. Not: can humanity survive? But: can it adapt?
One of the major battlegrounds for these tensions is sex. The original mission design called for a balanced crew, men and women boarding two-by-two, and a plan to maximise genetic diversity by ensuring that any given pair of men and women had only one child together. (There are a handful of gay candidates, we are told, but they’re still expected to “donate their genetic material” at the appropriate time.) After the chaos of the launch, which left some of the planned crew behind, and carried away some military and other personnel who forced their way on board at the last minute, there’s an imbalance – more men than women – which undermines almost every attempt to maintain a stable society. It may (or may not) have been clear from my review so far that, even more than Flood, this is primarily a story about women. The back cover, in fact, blurbs the novel as “the story of three women, Grace, Venus and Holle and their part in our struggle to rescue a future from the waves”; a slightly odd choice given that Venus is never as prominent a character as Kelly, but certainly accurate on the principle. Indeed the most important male characters are callous patriarchs, serial abusers, or mentally ill. Make of this, as they say, what you will; I at least did not detect any essentialising conclusions to be drawn, except perhaps the trivially true point that the sort of constraints that come to define life aboard the Ark are, across the world today, usually more familiar to women than men.
It’s at Earth II and after that Ark begins to spin apart. The crew splits: some wish to attempt colonisation, some to return to Earth, and some to travel onwards, to a newly detected Earth III. Although Baxter lets the colonists go (at least for now; their descendants’ fate is chronicled in last year’s pretty good novella, “Earth II”), he clings on to the other threads. There have been hints, it’s true, that something like this might happen – seemingly superfluous chapters about some of those left behind on Earth, interspersed with the crew’s antimatter-mining efforts at Jupiter, even a brief scene from the viewpoint of an elderly Lily Brooke – but it becomes, to my mind, a near-fatal flaw, a critical loss of focus. Adam Roberts notes that he didn’t know how the novel was going to end. I have to finesse that. I certainly had a sense of how each individual thread was going to end; to the extent that I didn’t know how the novel was going to end, it was the result of being unable to find any coherence among the divergent threads of story.
Or, put another way, in the end I couldn’t find the right question to ask of Ark. It seems too much a novel of disparate parts – not by any means all bad; but not unified. Perhaps I shouldn’t be treating it so much as its own book. It’s true that the series Baxter has written over the last decade or so – the Manifold books, Destiny’s Children, even Time’s Tapestry – follow the same general pattern, in that they eschew direct continuity even as they share a setting, and can generally be read in any order, and true that readers coming cold to Ark seem to find things to enjoy. But I can’t see the separation as entirely successful in this case. To the contrary, I start to wonder how the tale would have looked if the two novels – the one story – had been published in a single volume. I can imagine an integrated Flood and Ark, in which the overarching story is the trial of living in catastrophic times envisioned as a kind of generation starship, with each new generation raised in radically different circumstances to their parents, and thus coming of age with radically different expectations. Ark emphasises this theme in its second half, as the sense of a project the drives the first half is gradually lost, but for all its lopsided structure, without the additional context in Flood the treatment lacks weight. Now, Flood and Ark would have been a beast of a book, and would certainly have sacrificed Flood’s awesome clarity; but it might also have done some things better than either book does alone, and leave me less able to frame Ark as an answer to: “what bits of story were left over from Flood?”