Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review for "Ark" by Stephen Baxter

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You can find this book on Amazon here. 

Baxter is an author that I continue to find his works without actually looking for him. I frequent The Book Shelf, which sells used books. I admit that I am commonly a "visual" buyer and that I frequently pick up books because of their cover. I then read the description on the back and then usually read a selection of reviews on Amazon.

His books always find themselves in my hands and he generally has good to very good work. So, I picked up this book because, as usual, it fits my perfectly in my main interest of novels: post-apocalyptic, near-future science fiction, and space travel. This one has all of these things in one book. I was a little hesitant to pick it up as it is the sequel to his other work, "Flood". But the reviews I did read said that each was a stand-alone work.

Here is the description as found on Amazon:
Baxter's riveting follow-up to bestseller Flood tempers the hope of humanity coming together in the face of a crisis with an often brutal undercurrent of realism, resulting in a sequel that surpasses the original in almost every way. Set during the later years of the earth-destroying flood, the book follows Holle Groundwater and her friends as they go from being six-year-old students of an experimental space academy to a years-long trip through the cosmos in search of Earth 2. The best-laid plans are often, and unexpectedly, disrupted at almost every stage; the ship must deal with stowaways, unqualified applicants, infighting, and even mutiny. Characteristic of Baxter's writing, the novel can be depressing at times but still serves as a study of humanity's ability to adapt and make painful decisions for the greater good. 

What I really like about this novel is that it presents particular struggles that readers like me haven't considered,  though they are based on ideas that we have known about since childhood, AKA: Noah and the ark. What if the end of the world was presented in such a way that was so slow and methodical, yet so far fetched that we humans simply refuse to accept until it's too late? Would we be able to find a way to save everyone? Or would we have to come to terms that humanity on planet earth was doomed and that we would resort to finding refuge among the stars for only a few? If we chose to accept this fate, could we adapt and overcome the modern technical and physiological hurdles in time? Perhaps the hardest question is: when faced with a long journey of decades in a tin can, could we manage to keep from going insane? Could we govern ourselves? Could we adapt to a lifestyle so opposite of our evolution in such a short time?

Several of the aspects and plot drivers of this book were very interesting to me because of my background as a NASA engineer. In particular were the physics of building a launch vehicle that must both house a multitude of people for a decades of space travel when, to date, we have been unable to do so for more than a year at a time. Additionally, how the characters in this work managed to overcome the known limitations of physics to develop a faster than light propulsion system when chemical rockets were the state of the art.

One of the other aspects I enjoyed thinking about was the ability of a 80 person crew to coexist in a very small environment for a very long period of time. Additionally, as generations were brought into existence on the ship, how would they be different from their parents. Would they be better suited to their environment? What other struggles would exist on such a mission?

From an engineering perspective, how would such a fragile ship continue to function in such a razor thin environment, such as space. How would "close loop" systems react for long periods of time? Could humans keep from falling into degrading routines that would ultimately spell doom?

Lastly, how would they do on a completely new planet?


What I liked about this book
The flood, which is obviously the plot driver leading up to the departure of the 80 man crew from earth, really is an interesting end of the world concept. It isn't something that just happens in an instant and takes the earth from "fine" one minute to a "wasteland" the next. I found it very thought provoking on how the seas crept up a little each day, forcing man to recede deeper into the continents. The population density went up exponentially as the available land and resources depleted. How would I conduct my life? Would I be like all the other people who lived day to day, or would I be like the main characters who understood from the beginning what would happen and form a plan, even though it ultimately leads to the end of all but 80 lives on earth?

The next provoking thought would be, could I find satisfaction for the 20 years leading to the launch that human life would go on after I was dead? Could I use the last years of my life working tirelessly with virtually no reward in deplorable conditions just for hope? Knowing that ultimately I would face a terrible death at sea? As a father, how would I feel about sending my child off through the galaxy to spend their entire life in a tin can, on the hope that they could find a habitable planet?  As a potential crewman on this ship, could I deal with spending DECADES with the same people on a tiny ship? Could I deal with spending these decades of my life just to show up a possibly lethal planet? Could I ride the razors edge of this spacecrafts existence for all these decades, knowing at literally any second, I could die?

Naturally, I enjoyed reading about the engineering and how they overcame technical hurdles both in design and in-situ. I appreciate that they forced themselves to overcome these technical issues when there seemed to be no solution, not giving up because the fate of humanity was at stake.

I appreciated the heavy decisions that had to be made during the "flight" when things did not go as planned, as they never do. These decisions were hard on personal levels, but had direct impact on the future of all humanity.

I liked reading about how the generations post-flood evolved and adapted. I enjoyed thinking about how different the thought process would be for generations born on the ship than those born on earth. How life in their eyes would be so much different than mine. I was looking forward to seeing them re-adapt to a new planet. As a parent, I was very interested in how parenting would be difficult in such a situation.

Baxter did a fantastic job of showing the human ability to cope, prosper, and adapt. He also did a fine job of showing how humans can also degrade over time, if they are so inclined or left to their own devices.

What I didn't like about this book
Most of all my grievances on this novel are over the physics and plot holes.

Overcoming the "faster than light" propulsion system hurdle was a major factor...if not the biggest factor other than the flood. But, despite the ins and outs of the physics never being clearly explained, it's baffling how such a quantum leap in engineering was made in one system alone, but not in other systems around the ship, which would have made the decades long flight so much safer and easier. We never really hear on how the ships are powered, aside from a vague comment made about a nuclear reactor.

Additionally, being a NASA engineer, there were fundamental problems with the engineering on direct lifting 80 people and the supplies needed for them for decades. The "pusher plate" design may be feasible, but the basic engineering for the structure required is impossible. Regarding the former point, are we supposed to believe that a whole nuclear reactor was flown into space with all the aforementioned equipment? That doesn't even scratch the surface on how it would integrate with the remaining consumables such as water.

There are no real mentions to the major issues with long term space flight: radiation poisoning, long term degradation because of zero-g, and the lack of a closed-loop system. The middle issue was, honestly, confounding. There is a little mention of the effects on the passengers when they get back to gravity, but after spending a minimum of 10 YEARS in zero G, it could honestly be life threatening simply upon re-entry. In fact, in the last chapter, crew members WALK on the surface of a planet. Impossible.

One of my biggest problems with this novel is that there is only 2 major catastrophes on the ship and neither destroys it. Now, I'm not saying that either one would have, but the fact that these ships fly for decades without succumbing to a single other equipment failure. In space flight, near death experiences happen on a regular basis.

Lastly, the closed loop systems....I just don't understand. When you talk about the consumables needed for 80 people coupled with the fact that there is NO closed loop system, then you factor in a 30 year mission....it just isn't possible.

Regarding the writing of the book itself, the pace was slowed to a crawl when the mission began. That's mostly because life would be a crawl. Life would be monotonous. But Baxter fills it in with pages of filler that isn't needed, while leading open ended questions for future books at the expense of the reader.

The characters are numerous and largely faceless. The only characters who seem to grow and evolve do so in a negative way, which isn't necessarily bad. Things don't have to always be for the positive, but it's weird that some characters remain completely unchanged after 30 hard years.

Some of the decisions made in the latter half of the book, those made during flight, were appreciable. I understood how hard it would be to make them, yet the decisions some of the crew made were absolutely confounding.

The ending is, frankly, terrible. I won't spoil it. It was just obvious that we are left waiting for another round of books on the subject when it wasn't needed. Or wanted....

Conclusion
I really liked and enjoyed the beginning of the book, leading up to the engagement of the warp drive. I appreciated the technical hurdles, the feeling of being up against a wall with pressure mounting on the candidates as they competed for spots on the ship while trying to face down the technical hurdles. I flew through the book until that point. However, trying to make it through the last 100 pages or so was extremely hard for me, especially getting to the end and having the answers to my questions half way answered in such confounding lack of physical robustness. I wished the characters were developed better. Only about 4 or 5 of them had any face to me.

I did enjoy the book despite the technical issues, which were almost impossible to explain away anyway. I would have rather some mystical solution be given, however, than for the hand waving that was done. Despite my issues with this particular content, the book made me contemplate on how I would act, which really is a compliment. My wife and I had some discussions on how we would act and what we would do. To be thought provoking is what most authors aspire to do. Baxter did manage to do that, so I give him a lot of credit.

3 Stars