Book Review: Stephen Baxter’s ‘Proxima’ – An Enjoyable Romp In Sci-Fi

Before diving into the review, I must first state a  mea culpa of sorts. Science Fiction has always been a genre renowned for being big on the epic ideas and adventures -both physically and philosophically – yet for some unfathomable reason, despite enjoying the visual TV and film treats ranging from Star-Trek through to Red Dwarf, Blade Runner through to Battlestar Galactica and Interstellar, I have to confess I have rarely ventured into the literary realm.  I have tangentially entering it through a bit of Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman – both of whom I love to read – and whose works fantastically capture the imagination, but to my arbitrary categorising mind still appears a ‘genre-removed’ from ‘Sci-Fi-authenticus’ if you will.

I suspect this is in part due to an unconscious bias that always seems to prioritise the great many other novels that are on the infinitely expanding “to do list” as if somehow the knowledge or enjoyment gained from sci-fi texts is potentially less than that from the more conventional form. It’s a nonsensical logic, of course, and reflective of a mild prejudice perhaps on my behalf. In my weakened defence – it wasn’t for the lack of trying in my younger days, I did attempt some Iain M. Banks (The Algebraist) and even one of the most revered names in the genre – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation – but alas neither gripped me, whether it was the abstract worlds or the occasionally unpronouncable names, there was to a degree a distancing in the style that I regrettable couldn’t take to then. Since which, I have added many a title to the to do list, but it has taken until now to get round to throwing myself into the world properly, with Proxima by Stephen Baxter.

It’s premise drew me in swiftly: – always handy when you’re a tentative newcomer to a genre – Proxima is a red dwarf star within the Alpha Centauri star system – the closest to our own, and provider of the stage for the subject of 22nd century interstellar interplanetary travel and colonial expansion of mankind. Mars has already been colonised, whilst Mercury too has become habitable within its own Dome world. The first wave of colonisers are those forcibly selected for the adventure – inviting an analogy with the convicts sent out to Australia – amongst whom is Yuri; a young man who has been cryogenically frozen and awoken 80 years later, who serves as one of the main character conduits through which the exploration of alien ecology and interstellar travel is undertaken.

His displacement from his own time, provides the narrative device for certain plot expositions to take place.  Yuri is sent down with a small number of colonists – a number that swiftly dwindles – and doomed to this new planetary landscape – one where one half of the planet has the Sun constantly in the sky, and possessing its’ own unique stem-based life forms. Trapped light years from the rest of mankind, the central focus of the narrative on prox e or Per Ardua ( Latin: through adversity ) as it becomes known by the newly enforced locals is an engaging ( though not original ) study of life in a new world with a tiny handful of colonists / survivors and the AI ‘ColU’ machine – again an expedient device for dishing out some of the fascinating science, both fact-based and speculative.

Allied to this storyline we also follow the tale of Stef Kalinski, who we first meet as a young girl based on Mercury supporting her renowned scientist father. It is 2159 and her father is working on a project to send ‘Angelia’ a light-based but also sentient technology to Proxima.  Advances have clearly been made to allow humans to man Mercury, and in terms of the science behind this Baxter invents the development of ‘Kernels’, which have provided the means by which mankind has been able to travel across the solar system in practical fashion.  Kalinksi is the science savvy super-curious protagonist whose path will inevitably collide with Yuri’s on a planet 4.2 light years away. Beyond both of these personal narratives is the backdrop of political tensions beween the competing blocs of  a large scale United Nations and a powerful China, competing for influence that extends beyond the global and into the solar system, and the Kernel technology is at the heart of simmering tensions.

The story thus  alternates between these two worlds, with the heavier focus on Per Ardua, and Baxter does a fine job in establishing a mysterious enigma in the plot that will serve to facilitate the convergence of Stef and Yuri’s lives. The intrigue and suspense is built up very well, though it seems only fair to say that towards the end you realise you are very much reading a narrative that is not going to conclude or explain the various contrivances until the sequel ( ‘Ultima’ – and my eagerness to read this is clearly a credit to the storytelling of Baxter ).  How the lives of Yuri and Kalinksi collide is engrossing, and one weakness for me – possibly as a result of the set up for sequel – is that there are certain flashpoint moments for characters within the story for which I’d love more exploration but are denied by the swift pace of the plot. In order to encompass the grand ideas and conceits within the story sees use follow the lives of the characters over many decades.

This scope of grand time elapsing is clearly necessary for the plot, which represents great ambition and is a reflection of a focus on the big rather than the small, which is probably what I am more used to – reading character arcs within a much more contained timespan – so perhaps I am being unfair. Indeed the spectre of the sequel does suggest further consideration of both the concept and human reflections and I very much look forward to reading more.  The content and the imagination of the worlds and technologies envisioned is easily the strongest component of the novel, though in Stef and Yuri in particular there are two main characters who are sufficiently interesting psychologically to help drive your attention forward.

If I am critical, the exposition of the plot at times struck me as a little clunky and stylistically I wasn’t always enamoured by some of the very brief chapters – one was merely a 5 line paragraph. I can understand the method, in separating the focus from one planet and character to the next, but it jarred with me at times personally. Additionally whilst I am more of a content rather than style consumer of fiction, there were still a few areas where the writing was a little unsatisfying and could have thrived with a little more polish.

All in all however it was a successful foray into the world of Sci-Fi fiction for me and I do look forward to reading more, not only the follow up to this book, but other authors too. If you like Sci-Fi yourself and have any particular recommendations yourself, do let me know!

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