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June 29, 2011

Last summer I read Stephen Baxter’s Flood, and this summer it’s been so cool and rainy I went looking for the sequel, Ark, in which humans leave the flooded Earth and head off in a ship they design, starting at the level of knowledge we have today and succeeding in powering it by a warp bubble and maintaining its systems for the years of travel necessary to reach earth-like planets.

The technology is interesting, and plausible:

“You send up a giant sheet, spinning for stability. It looks like a flower, with petals. Then you have a conventional telescope–we’re using the Hubble–thousands of kilometers away. The shade is supposed to block out the light of the star, allowing the telescope to see any planets. With that arrangement we should be able to image continents on an Earth-like planet, even out to thirty or forty light-years. It’s a scheme that was championed years ago by an astronomer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which is how we were able to dig it up.”

The way they launch the Ark is based on science from the 1950s and 60s, and when one character asks why the technology was never developed, he is reminded that “growing opposition to nuclear weapons through the 1960s caused the Orion concept to be viewed with suspicion.”

The search for an earth-like planet takes generations, and how the original crew and then their children and children’s children adapt to life in space is part of the story.  I like one detail, in particular, about a game invented on board, Infinite chess:

“It was played with regular pieces on a regular board, save that the players had to imagine the board wrapped around itself, so that the right edge was glued to the left, and the upper edge glued to the lower. So, given normal restrictions on movement, a given piece could move right off the edge of its world and reappear to the left. It gave the illusion of infinity on a finite board….A queen became particularly powerful; faced by an empty diagonal, row or column, she could leap, theoretically, an infinite number of squares in a single move….white had an immediate advantage with the first move. Your queen could step backward and wrap around the world to take your opponent’s queen, though she would then fall to the opposing king. Your rooks, stepping back into your opponent’s back rank, could do a lot of damage before being quelled. End-game analysis was less affected, as the board was so open anyhow.”

There are beautiful descriptions of stars and systems, and tantalizing details:

“Once, just once, as Venus drifted in the dark of the cupola, she picked up a strange signal. It appeared to be coherent, like a beam from a microwave laser. She used her space-borne telescopes to triangulate the signal, determining that it wasn’t anywhere close. And she passed it through filters to render it into audio. It sounded cold and clear, a trumpet note, far off in the galactic night.

If it was a signal it wasn’t human.

She listened for two years, all the way to Earth III. She never heard it again.”

But the tantalizing details, mostly, add up to something in terms of action or character development, which makes this a well-crafted voyage into what could be.

Reading Ark is a good escape from what is.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 7:32 am

    You almost have me intrigued. Your last sentence… about escaping what is? I am reading something so disturbing right now and I’m not comfortable. (Still Missing by Chevy Stevens, fyi) Maybe I need some good scifi.

    • June 29, 2011 4:23 pm

      I find SF good for escapism. In this case, literally!

  2. June 29, 2011 8:21 am

    Ohhh this sounds good. I have been rereading Asimov all summer; maybe it’s time to branch out.

    • June 29, 2011 4:24 pm

      This would be a good follow-up, in that it has some of the technical detail with more of the character development that most Asimov tales lack.

  3. June 29, 2011 8:29 am

    I’m not going to tell AJ about infinite chess. He’ll just want to play it and then he’ll skunk me at that too.

    • June 29, 2011 4:26 pm

      I thought it was funny the same way that 3-D chess on Star Trek is kind of funny. It’s kind of a “let’s out-geek the geeks” thing.

  4. freshhell permalink
    June 29, 2011 8:54 am

    I am, I think, too stupid to read scifi because that paragraph describing the technology confuses me. Haven’t the slightest idea what it means. So, I’ll stick to the world I know which is baffling enough as it is.

    • June 29, 2011 4:28 pm

      No one is “too stupid” for SF, but if you read a lot of it, you tend to take those kind of descriptions more in stride. It’s fun for me to imagine how it would be possible to find another earth-like planet.

      • freshhell permalink
        June 30, 2011 2:16 pm

        My problem is I get too hung up on what it means to enjoy myself.

        • June 30, 2011 2:33 pm

          As we all do, at least occasionally. My goal is to continue to try to read and do new things and not become a complete curmudgeon.

          • freshhell permalink
            June 30, 2011 4:47 pm

            Well, I will have to stick to TC Boyle and Margaret Atwood for my alternate-dystopic universes and sign up for curmudegeonhood. It’s who I am and I must embrace it. 🙂

  5. June 29, 2011 12:35 pm

    Aaagghh! You beat me to it! I actually started Ark and then had to pack and move so I haven’t finished it – or anything else yet. Now I’m looking forward to picking it back up and finishing it!

    • June 29, 2011 4:29 pm

      I had an eleven-day recess in my reading of it (during my parents’ visit) and picked it right back up with no trouble.

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