Monday, July 20, 2015

Proxima - Stephen Baxter

Proxima is the first part of a duology by Stephen Baxter. It has a focus on our first attempt to colonise a new world, and the lengths that they take to do so. It’s also the story of family, and friends, of hardships overcome, overwhelmed by, or endured. It’s the story of two impossible sisters, and of humanity.

From a setting point of view, Proxima has a pretty broad scope. 

Geographically, it dips across Mercury, Mars and Earth, as well as less familiar locales – the first interstellar colony ship, and the first human colonies on Proxima C. Baxter manages to make all of these locations feel at the same time alien and familiar. Mars is a red hell, a barren wasteland marked by human efforts. Those efforts span the ramshackle base of a UN taskforce, through to a sleek, towering needle constructed by the Chinese. Mercury feels just as much a wilderness marked by human occupation, but there things are of a different tenor – the tone is one of exploration, a scientific base teetering on the verge of great, potentially universe altering discoveries. There’s enough reminders that the outside is lethal, but the essential humanity of the characters isn’t subsumed into the environment – rather, it emphasises it.

Baxter’s near-future Earth is a contrast to both of these – it has a feel of population not present in the Mars or Mercury environs. At the same time, there’s passing mention, in dialogue and in descriptive passages, of world-shattering events in the past, though in our future – the effects of climate change, clearly visible, driving people north, and the impact of the attempts made to avert global catastrophe – with apparently ambiguous results. It’s an Earth we may recognise, with a mental squint, but at the same time, far enough into the distance to look unfamiliar.

The other key environment is the world of Proxima C, which the Earth is reaching out to expand into. I won’t spoil what they find here, but will say that Proxima C is full of surprises. It also manages the trick of seeming a lot like Earth, whilst retaining the sort of differences which demarcate the two for the reader. Baxter makes a strong effort to remind the reader that they, like the characters, are somewhere new, somewhere unknown, and somewhere potentially deadly. 

Along with the sprawling set of environments, there’s a fairly large cast of characters. We begin with the charmingly named Yuri Eden, involuntarily decanted onto a ship set for Proxima C. Yuri is clearly damaged, withdrawn, and with a certain abrasiveness displayed toward those he interacts with. The feeling is of an incomplete human being, one wrung out by circumstance. He’s ably assisted by a supporting cast which have a similar feel about them – humanity’s expedition to the stars is, perhaps fittingly, not exactly one crewed by the best and brightest. The ensemble around Yuri is perhaps a little thinner in character moments than it needs to be – we learn names, potted histories, and observe actions, and typically this works – but we don’t invest in them as much as we do our viewpoint character.

Similarly, there’s the scientist looking into a new energy source on Mercury. We get a large portion of her backstory through flashbacks, and are introduced to many of the characters around her in this way. There’s more of an emotional truth here, a woman digging for answers, driven by a need to know, a desire to understand. Baxter manages to evoke a feeling of isolation here, a woman looking to use work as a means of understanding the world around her, as well as herself. The reader gets a sense of her emotional wealth in the flashbacks, and the consequences of her decisions based on that in the novel’s present. Again, there’s an able cast of supporting characters – it would have been nice to give them more time, but they feel sufficiently three-dimensional for the purposes of the narrative.

I won’t get into the plot much, for fear of spoilers. However, I will say that the scope is impressive. Baxter manages to talk about a great many things at once. The place of humanity in the universe. The price of greed, morally and ecologically. The way that people will act, when they have nothing left to lose. The way that small actions can snowball out of control, with unexpected consequences. How we, as a species, might react to a paradigm shifting event. 

He also manages to do this whilst being unafraid of the consequences, and while appreciating the passage of time. The book takes place over a period of years, and there’s a sense of seeing characters grow, shift their stances as they age. It feels organic, and entirely believable in the framework Baxter has set up.

Overall, Proxima is a novel of plausibly hard science fiction, with decent characters, fascinating environments, and a plot with sprawling breadth and scope. If that sounds like your sort of thing, then it’s certainly worth your time.

No comments:

Post a Comment