If you ever wanted to know how humanity should not go about spreading away from Earth and colonizing the universe than oooo boy does Stephen Baxter have an example for you in his 2012 book, Proxima.
In a nutshell: don’t do it until we’re a united planet. Otherwise, we’re just gonna space race our asses all over the universe and probably screw over everyone involved, from the remaining earthlings, to the residents of Sol planets, and to the newbie colonizers of distant planets in far away systems.
Proxima introduces us to the galaxy in the 23rd century, via Yuri Eden, a colonizer of Proxima who also happens to have been cryofrozen and thus technically a 21st century human. He’s been shuffled all over the earth and the Sol system, and finds himself round up on an interstellar ship and dropped on Proxima, where they are told to make babies and survive, or else they will certainly die because no one is going to check up on them for 100 years. The United Nations of this century is in a Cold War of sorts with China, the only other country not to join the rest of the humanity in, well, being united. This 23rd century version of humanity is basically Gene Roddenberry’s worst nightmare, because there is no talk of the greater good, exploration for the sake of science and knowledge, and certainly no moral drive in their pursuit of new planets. Hell, they meet alien life on Proxima and everyone is like “meh, no big deal, they’re just weird little tripod stick things that build a lot of dams”. That is, everyone except Yuri, and his trusty AI farming robot, the ColU, which seems to be the only lifeform in the entire series devoted to understanding it’s universe.
It’s got some great ideas. Baxter has a weird obsession with writing about life on Dwarf planets, and continues some of the themes he started in the fantastic book Arc, landing the colonizers on a planet that has one half permanently stuck in daylight and the other in darkness, and a host of mysteries surrounding the planet itself and why the strange native life to it do what they do.
I loved the first two thirds of the book, which felt like a survival story on Proxima paralleled with a compelling mystery back in the Sol system. I didn’t love some of the one dimensional characterizations, as Baxter is prone to doing, especially with antagonists. He sometimes gets a little too heavy on creating mystery around characters and forgets to build them up into lovable companions that we spend our time with. It’s easy for him to throw aside the people who make up Yuri’s life, because he never does much to make them people. There are at least three characters Yuri spends several decades of his life with, and who are shown the door with very little farewell, and very little care. You end up feeling more for his relationship with the ColU, in part because everyone constantly reminds it that it is “just” a farming robot and needs to stop being so damn curious.
After the first third and the driving narrative device behind the exploration is settled, it moves into a larger set up for another book, with the makings of a war and a reason to get off of Earth and away from Sol, while also establishing the methods to get Yuri into another adventure. I read this last stuff a little less enthusiastically, although my boss was probably grateful I stopped showing up to work with little sleep from nights spent unable to put the book down.
It ends rather abruptly, and might as well say “To be continued…” so naturally I looked it up and found out there’s a sister book, Ultima, that I now have to go read.
Baxter is great at some things; dreaming up new planets and places, showing us how humanity has a lot of built in folley and can lead to it’s own destruction, and building slow burning mysteries that turn into page turners. He’s not so great at making us care about the actual people populating this book, which is a shame because the Arc/Flood duology excelled at that.