Book Review: Ark – by Stephen Baxter

I have read a number of stories about starships to colonize other planets, but all of them are usually in the very distant future. Ark starts in about 2020, and ends in about 2090, in the foreseeable future. I was able to identify with the characters, the technology and the premise made sense.

Ark is the sequel to Baxter’s Flood, a book I have not read. However, I had no trouble picking up the story in Ark independently.  Due to changes in the Earth’s crust, underground water gets pushed up to the surface, rising ocean levels significantly over the course of several decades. By displacing entire countries and continents, the flood puts humanity’s very future at risk. A group of technological visionaries, rich industrialists, ex-NASA officers and politicians get together to conceptualize an interstellar spaceship to take a select crew of 80 humans to colonize another star system and hopefully ensure the survival of the human race.

They know that in order to be able to make this possible, faster than light travel is necessary and even with that, trips will take decades. Against all odds, against all reason, between the years 2020 and 2040, such a feat is actually accomplished and a starship is built. In parallel to the engineering task of building the ship, a select group of 80 “Candidates” are groomed from almost birth on to be the crew. They are selected for their raw abilities, their intelligence, genetic diversity and of course based on political favors. The Candidates are groomed for the mission from early childhood, and they know that eventually they will leave earth in a spaceship, never to return.

The ship is built from twin independent hulls based on the original space shuttle’s external tank. That makes each of the two hulls a cylinder of 40 meters in height and 8 meters in diameter, with cones on both ends. Each hull will provide housing for 40 of the original candidates, who are about 22 years old when they leave. The journey to the first destination is scheduled to take 10 years in total. As they progress, due to plot twists I will not reveal here, a part of the crew ends up on a journey taking much longer, eventually reaching a planet more than 100 light years away after a trip that takes 40 years.

The implications are mind-boggling. The original crew members are in their 60ies when they arrive. After they spend their entire childhood and youth planning for a mission, they then spend their entire adult lives inside the ship traveling, year after year.

They also have to procreate. Most of the Candidates have children who are then known as “shipborn”. There is an entire generation of humans that was born inside a 40 meter cylindrical ship, never experienced any other type of environment or life. Another 20 years later even they had children, so there were second generation shipborn people. I imagine what my thinking would be like if I lived in a battered, fragile spaceship, was born there, traveled for decades, and my parents were also born there, without ever knowing any other way of life.

Stephen Baxter’s book Ark deals with the implications of what might happen to humans on this type of journey, their challenges, technical, sociological, ethical, political, procreational and philosophical.

I can marvel about the implications for days, write many pages, but then, that’s what Baxter did, so you just have to read Ark. It’s worth it.

Rating: ***

Leave a Reply