>I first read Stephen Baxter when I picked up Voyage, his first ‘alternative NASA’ novel. It posits a history in which Kennedy shrugs off Oswald’s bullet and the Space Shuttle gets rejected in favour of a manned Mars mission. Voyage tracks that mission in obsessive detail and, along with The Time Ships, remains one of my favourite Baxter books.
Now Ark may have to join them. Baxter’s new novel chronicles the aftermath of a catastrophic flood and humanity’s attempts to survive it by building a spacegoing ark. What’s extraordinary about Baxter is his ability to make his epic ingredients (global annihilation, interstellar travel to a new world) utterly plausible. He doesn’t fudge the physics (well, maybe a little) – somehow he makes you believe we could actually travel to the stars. Right now.
Most important of all, he keeps it human. Everything’s presented from the point of view of his key characters (many of them typical Baxter Strong Women). No godlike authorial voice here, everything’s down and frequently dirty.
In many respects, Ark is the culmination of everything Baxter’s done to date. It has the epic scope of his early Xeelee novels, combined with the ultra-realism of the later ones. He skips along a narrative line spanning many decades with a light touch and an eye for critical detail and emotional pinch-points. And if the story was a little slow to start, I forgave him because, by the end, he’d pretty much taken my breath away.