“Proxima” by Stephen Baxter

Proxima is, ostensibly, about humanity’s first attempts at colonizing a planet in a different solar system. I say “ostensibly” because, really, the story is also about tensions between the United Nations, which has control of Mercury and part of Mars, and China, which controls part of Mars and parts of the asteroid belt. Oh, it’s also about an unknown alien intelligence that has sprinkled Mercury and Proxima C with some really useful–and dangerous–bits of technology. And don’t forget the moralizing fable about how humanity never learns from its mistakes, like playing Cold War games with incredibly powerful weapons or not caring what happens to the local environment and natives when settling a new land.

Did you get all of that? No? Then let me take a different tack.

This is a book that divides opinion. If you read sci-fi because you like to discover alien worlds and fantastic technologies, if you enjoy imagining a future that seems scientifically plausible, then there is plenty here for you. Whether it’s a world where the sun never sets and most life-forms are a weird blend of animal and plant, or powerful AI’s that may or may not have humanity’s best interests in mind, or even attempts to develop a type of soda that will fizz nicely in low-gravity environments, Baxter does the science part of science-fiction with skill and imagination.

On the other hand, if you want interesting characters and a compelling plot, this likely will not be the book for you. For much of the novel, characters are almost completely interchangeable. Research scientists, soldiers, murderers and recently awoken cryogenically frozen misfits who are a century behind the times, all of them regularly burst into fascinating analyses of everything from the transits of planets across the face of Proxima C to the tri-lateral symmetry of the alien life.

I gotta say, those are some well-educated murders.

And yet, when they first arrive on Proxima C, none of these intelligent and educated settlers have the least interest in the strange and wondrous alien life that surrounds them. They spend a year–a year–sitting in their camp whining about who gets to have sex with who. Of course, you can’t really fault their lack of interest when the government/corporation that shipped them to Proxima C just dumps the settlers off, then turns around and heads home. They don’t bother taking samples of the local life, they don’t survey the planet in any detail, nothing. They leave behind a tiny crew of soldiers–not scientists–to monitor the settlers and send reports, but that is it.

For me, that was more than a plot hole. That was the first point where I nearly set the book down.

There were a couple of other points–similarly unbelievable behaviours by individuals and organizations–that nearly made me stop reading. The descriptions of Proxima C and the “builders” that inhabited it were the only thing that kept me going. That part of the novel was done really well.

Other aspects of the book could have been intriguing: the hints at an alien intelligence working on a galactic scale and even the morality play about humanity failing to learn from past mistakes. But neither of these really worked for me. The alien intelligence was touched on so little (and inexplicably and frustratingly ignored by characters) that I found it unconvincing and underdeveloped. The morality play could have been interesting but, for it to work, it would probably have to be the central theme of the novel and not something tagged on to the end.

There is a sequel, Ultima, which promises to develop the alien intelligence further. I won’t be reading it anytime soon. However, if you like hard sci-fi and don’t give a whit about character or a few plot holes, you might want to give Proxima a try.

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