Russell Letson reviews Stephen Baxter

We should get this established right up front: Stephen Baxter’s Proxima is just the first part of a longer narrative, the precise nature and destination of which is only hinted at by the passage that prefaces the main body of the story:

In the heart of a hundred billion worlds –
Across a trillion dying realities in a lethal multiverse –
In the chthonic silence –
Minds diffuse and antique dreamed the Dream of the End Time.

Yow. But of this promised cosmic-multiverse mystery tour we get the smallest clues and winks in what generally unfolds as an epic of interstellar pioneering and solar-system expansion against a backdrop of back-home political madness, with just the smallest dashes of lurking superscience puzzles. Add echoes of leapfrogging-technologies stories (e.g., van Vogt’s Far Centaurus) in which three expeditions using different technologies are despatched to the nearest star with a habitable planet, and you have a very busy, multi-threaded book.

The story proper opens with one of the novel’s four viewpoint characters, Yuri Eden, awakening from cryogenic hibernation to find himself aboard the sub-lightspeed starship Ad Astra, bound for Proxima Centauri. This is not the first time Yuri has found himself displaced in time and space and less than free: he had been put in a cryo tank on Earth in the late 21st century (for reasons that are revealed much later in the book) and was defrosted in a ‘‘prison-like colony’’ on Mars. Now, almost another century later, he is once again an involuntary colonist. Groups of conscripts are to be dropped in various locations on marginally habitable Prox c: a curious, tide-locked world (whose planetology is worked out in ways that Poul Anderson would approve of), where each will be left to establish a foothold settlement with the aid of an ‘‘autonomous colonisation unit,’’ or ColU, a multipurpose robot. (The unit accompanying Yuri’s group becomes one of the book’s most sympathetic characters.) And they’re all there to stay – the Ad Astra will return to Earth, but the draftees are now permanent pioneers and on their own, expected to put down (literal) roots and produce future generations. Yuri’s group rather sourly renames Prox c ‘‘Per Ardua,’’ and their struggle for survival eventually includes a First Contact element when the ColU establishes that Proximan life is sentient (if strange and enigmatic).

The back-story of the Ad Astra expedition – and a second narrative thread – starts with the discovery, on Mercury, of the energy-producing, exotic-physics objects called ‘‘kernels.’’ Kernels revolutionize space travel, and control of them becomes a leading source of tension in the Cold War-ish relationship between the UN that discovered them and the Chinese hegemony that dominates half of Earth as well as Mars and the outer system. (This is the same future history that includes the 2010 story ‘‘Obelisk,’’ in the Edge of Infinity anthology, reviewed in March 2013.) And as if that weren’t enough, Mercury yields up one more surprise: the Hatch, an even more exotic object found near the kernel fields, which opens up a whole new set of possibilities and pathways for the story lines.

These back-home events are witnessed by Stef Kalinski, daughter of a senior scientist on Mercury, and later by her twin (via a twist of cosmic fate) sister Penelope. And, just to keep things interesting, Yuri and his companions are not the first or only interstellar pioneers and explorers. Decades earlier, a solo astronaut had been sent on a pre-kernel-technology mission of no return to Proxima, and back in the home system Stef’s father has devised an AI that is also a starship, whose core personality, Angelia, thinks of itself as a sister to Stef. Angelia has chapters of her own as she discovers the nature and costs of her propulsion and communications systems.

The novel’s core, however, remains the story of Yuri’s little group of colonists: their conflicts, adjustments, and gradual and partial understanding of the nature of Per Ardua and its native life. The scientific puzzles and political tensions of the Stef/Penelope segments build toward a crisis and climax that do eventually affect Yuri’s story and even that of Angelia, but one suspects that they will be even more important to whatever follows in the sequel (or second half), which promises a major shift in mode.

In this volume, however, several motifs of less than cosmic interest bind the story lines together. The primary one is the way each expedition involves some kind of sacrifice or exploitation of the thinking payload, from the initial one-man/one-way model, through the press-ganged colonists of Yuri’s thread, to the destructive mechanism built into the Angelia AI’s design. These in turn echo other situations: the conditions that led to Yuri’s initial and second freezings; Angelia’s betrayal by her creator; an Ad Astra astronaut’s unexpected demotion from crew member to colonist status to replace a dead draftee; perhaps even Stef’s isolation as the bright, oddly socialized child of a genius scientist.

The cultural-political context for all this is a general rejection of earlier efforts to deal with the global crises of the Jolts. The current movers and shakers scornfully dismiss the ways of the ‘‘Heroic Generation’’ and its ‘‘hubristic planetary engineering schemes,’’ which they see as wasteful and irresponsible. Some of the technologies involved (notably strong AIs) have been ‘‘made illegal retrospectively,’’ and even the descendants of those held responsible are prosecuted for the actions of their parents or grandparents. But the 22nd century has its own big projects, along with its meta-tribal rivalries and its own version of arrogance, ruthless ambition, and hardball politics. The UN’s high-handed treatment of the drafted colonists is of a piece with the crazy brinksmanship that dominates the later chapters of the back-home thread.

As the book progressed, I kept thinking about Jupiter War, puzzling over why it seemed appropriate that these two apparently dissimilar books should wind up in the same review. Part of it was certainly the portraits of the callous and manipulative governments wielding powers that they are not up to controlling. Then I recalled what Donald Wollheim (in The Universe Makers, 1971) called ‘‘the cosmogony of the future,’’ a rough consensus about of the kinds of future-historical scenarios that science fiction could work within, and wondered whether Asher and Baxter might be a new version of such a consensus. There has always been what might be called a discontinuity option in SF scenarios: the notion that the smooth progress to a space- or star-travelling future might be interrupted by, say, nuclear war. The current version of that interruption is a period of ecological/climatic/economic troubles, on the far side (or in the midst) of which a recovered humankind manages to get off-world – Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds have also adopted and adapted this model to accommodate the bumpy ride we are in for in the actual future that has grown out of the optimistic, linear-progress thinking of the ’40s and ’50s.

But recall the novel’s strange opening passage, with its ‘‘minds diffuse and antique.’’ It is echoed and amplified on the final page, which suggests that not only is there more to come, but that it may well operate in a very different mode or genre. This volume’s mantelpiece is adorned with multiple firearms that have not been taken down and fired yet. I anticipate colorful and almost certainly unexpected explosions and ricochets, and perhaps an ambush or two.

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