2. Ark Stephen Baxter 5/22/2011 *****
"It's the year 2030. The oceans have risen rapidly, and soon the entire planet will be submerged. But the discovery of another life-sustaining planet light years away gives those who remain alive hope. Only a few will be able to make the journey - Holle Groundwater is one of the candidates. If she makes the cut, she will live. If not, she will be left to face a watery death..."
I've avoided writing this review for "Ark" for months now, and I'm not exactly sure why. It's totally not fair to the novel, which I loved, yet every time I thought of putting my thoughts about it into words, I'd put it off - partly because I'm still unsure of how to describe how I feel about this novel.
"Ark" is the sequel to "Flood," and tells the story of Ark One, (which was mentioned briefly in "Flood") and a group of young people training to fly the spaceship to a planet that has been discovered that may possibly support life. Holle Groundwater joins the group of candidates as a child, and they train together through their teenage years, preparing for an event that they themselves cannot really even comprehend. Outside the confines of their safe, secure, and (comparatively) luxurious training compounds, the rest of the world continues its slow decline as the oceans rise year by year, and refugees from the drowned areas of the world flock towards higher ground in a desperate bid to survive.
When the time arrives for the improbable spaceship to blastoff and begin its journey into space nothing goes as planned, as thousands of refugees storm the compound and break into the facility in an attempt to board the ship. Holle and her companions barley board in time and the takeoff, while ultimately successful, is far from the smooth operation that they trained for. The ship ends up overcrowded with people who are unqualified and unprepared for what is to come, and some of the greatly needed specialists don't make it on-board at all. Everyone tries to make the best of the situation, and the journey to the stars begins.
The rest of the novel deals with the journey, and the social situations that evolve as the crew spend years in the over-crowded conditions, dealing with the complications of a second generation that has never known Earth or full gravity, and have no concept of the life their parents have left behind and the sacrifices of their elders.
At one point in the story one of the engineers has some sort of mental break and develops multiple personalities from the stress, and becomes convinced that late at night he can hear someone knocking on the outside of the ship. This leads to some almost cult-like behavior among some of the crew, who spend hours sharing their dreams and eventually convincing themselves that they aren't even on a ship in space at all and that the flooding of Earth never happened, and that the whole thing is an elaborate "reality" show. Believing that the "knocking" outside the walls are some sort of secret message, some of the second generation tunnel through the wall of one of the compartments, and the resulting disaster nearly destroys the entire ship.
Baxter is an amazing author, and as one reads "Ark" it seems apparent that he has done his research thoroughly, not just into the science of space and flight, but into the social sciences as well. Some of these scenes were so well written that for several nights after finishing "Ark," I would wake up in the middle of the night totally convinced that someone had just knocked on the wall beside my bed.
While many of the scenes and events in "Ark" are horrifying and depressingly awful, there is an underlying feeling of hope and courage, as the crew struggles to do everything they can to ensure the survival of the human race, enduring unthinkable hardships and sacrificing nearly everything along the way, yet still attempting to retain that which makes them human. Ultimately though, the ending of the novel almost felt anti-climatic - there were too many loose ends left lying about to feel certain that the sacrifices and the hardships hadn't been in vain.
However, I still give it five stars, and recommend it to people often, as an amazing example of what good science fiction can be like. "Ark," like "Flood," will make you think, and that, along with great storytelling and characters, makes it a great book in my opinion.