Fiction Reviews


(2013) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 457pp, ISBN 978-1-575-11684-9


Yuri wakes from suspended animation, placed there by his parents to escape to the future from a (then) uncertain present. In Yuri's past, the Earth had been depleted of many natural resources and gone through climate change. Yuri wakes on Mars in a UN base, one of the few UN presences on the largely Chinese-controlled Mars, but is not welcome. Not long after, he is sent back into suspended animation only to wake up on an interstellar ship. With him are many forced to go and colonise a new world, including criminals and political malcontents. The journey will take many years despite the new kernel drive technology and some time dilation.

A few years earlier, on Mercury young Stef (Stephanie) accompanies her scientist father who is part of the programme to launch a star-wisp, artificial intelligence probe to Proxima Centauri 4.26 light years from Earth: it is our nearest star (other than Sol). But solar sail, ultra light interstellar probe technology is already out of date. The Mercury research facility is already testing a new star drive powered by mysterious kernels found beneath that planet's surface.

Stef goes on to have a science career studying the kernels: a career that will make her a political showpiece in the growing conflict between the UN (with kernel technology) and the Chinese (who have Mars and many of the asteroids). As tensions rise, another discovery on Mercury reveals that an intelligence before humanity has been there. It is all a bit of a mystery both for humanity and the few artificial intelligences that abound.

Orbiting the cool main-sequence red dwarf, Proxima Centauri, is a planet. Being cool (like many stars in the Galaxy), Proxima has a lifetime longer than that of Sol. Equally, being cool its habitable zone is close to the star and any planets there are in the habitable region are within Proxima's tidal lock zone. Indeed there is one such planet, which Yuri and his reluctant, fellow colonists call, Per Ardua, which has one face permanently towards Proxima and one permanent night side that is frozen. Yet there is life there, and the potential for Earth crops to grow. The colonists might just survive on this world if only they can overcome their own rivalries and learn enough about their strange new home.

Back in the Solar system, relationships strain between the Chinese and UN rise and interplanetary conflict looms…

Having recently completed the historical fantasy (with a hint of SF) Time's Tapestry quadrilogy (2006-2008), the fantasy-riffed, Palaeolithic Northland trilogy (2010-2012), this is Baxter's solo return to hard SF and it is a cracking adventure that provides a solid read that will delight his SF regulars.

I am not sure what it is but the past couple of years have seen a few remarkable interplanetary verging on interstellar novels; almost enough to arguably constitute a trend. These have included: Paul McAuley's Quiet War sequence, Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 and Alistair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth. All are set within a couple of centuries of now. All depict the Earth ravaged by resource depletion and climate change. All are Sol system interplanetary. All have at least a hint of interstellar migration either as a prospect or the embryonic actuality. Proxima is no exception. If however, there is a difference then Proxima is what some might call less literate and more gung-ho adventure: there is nothing wrong with that as Stephen Baxter gives good gung-ho.

For the scientist into SF there is plenty of science fact underpinning the story including the Robert Forward 'Star Wisp' solar sail probes (those at the 1990 Worldcon in the Hague, might recall Forward resplendent in a white suit waxing lyrical on the topic), and not least the prospect of red dwarves having an Earth-like exoplanet given the tsunami of exoplanet discoveries the past decade.

Having said that Stephen Baxter is not so hot on the biology and biosphere (Earth system) science but – you've got to admire him – does have a go, to the extent that I truly wonder whether he might even have read Revolutions that made the Earth. Alas, among other things, continental drift – needed for any biosphere's deep elemental cycles – and hence the associated supercontinent, or ocean basin Wilson, cycle, would be lethal for any evolving terrestrial metazoans (multi-celled animals) on a non-spherical (hence continetal drift absent) world like Per Ardua. But this is SF so let's not science detail undermine a great adventure. I am less forgiving of the way the protagonists dash (actually they walk) into and out of the sub-stellar point in the book's second half, but it does ensure that the plot's pace picks up as the story moves to a climatic crescendo. (Well, I did say that this was gung-ho.)

As for the SF, Stephen Baxter has been heralded, with some merit, as Arthur C. Clarke's literary heir, and Proxima certainly reinforces this accolade in spades. There is more than a hint of forces affecting intelligence's evolution that both Clarke and Baxter have utilised in the past: indeed they have even done so jointly. Stephen also revisits some themes he has previously explored. These include not just the interplanetary and interstellar travel tropes, but also those of deep time forces, historical fantasy, and even planetary catastrophe. (Alas there is one other I cannot reveal as that would constitute a spoiler, but it suffice to say it has appeared in a number of his stories including at the heart of one of his series of novels.) The bottom line being that there is much here that hard SF fans will love and for Baxter's regulars to enjoy.

This is a fine return for this author to harder SF (the Terry Pratchett 'Long Earth' collaboration notwithstanding). It has been all too long, so let us hope he stays a while.

Jonathan Cowie

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