We have wondered how life began ever since we had the wherewithal to wonder, I warrant. Generation after generation, inquiring minds have asked exactly that: a question that has no absolute answer, so far. A question so complex that many expect we’ll never figure it out, not for a fact.
Saying that, these days, we have a pretty decent theory. It’s all conjecture, of course, but breakthrough after breakthrough made in recent years appear to agree that in all likelihood, life began by way of RNA, or ribonucleic acid: a self-replicating molecule composed of four building blocks of a sort, two of which scientists have already successfully synthesised using the same simple chemicals that existed on Earth at the time the first fabled spark was struck.
But what if somewhere far from here—fully four years at the speed of light from the solar system we call home—life began in a very different manner? What if the building blocks it was fashioned from were fundamentally different? Would life find a way anyway?
That’s the question Stephen Baxter asks in his latest novel, Proxima, the first part of an absorbing and characteristically ambitious new duology about the colonisation of a vast exoplanet... and the answer? No less than a resounding yes.
Meet Yuri Eden: not our hero’s real name, but it’ll do. It’ll have to.
Yuri had been born on Earth in the year 2067, nearly a hundred years ago, and, dozing in a cryo tank, had missed mankind’s heroic expansion out into the solar system. It had been his fortune to wake up in a prison-like colony on what he had learned, gradually, was Mars. But now, after another compulsory sleep, this was different again.
At the very outset of the text, Yuri assumes he’s back on Earth. Does he have another thing coming! Unhappily, he’s been awakened “aboard the prosaically named Ad Astra,” a prison ship of criminals in the process of being transported to an apparently habitable planet orbiting a far-distant star, the better to people it with UN citizens before China—this future’s superpower—can do likewise.
Proxima, incidentally, is a real red dwarf, though Baxter admits in the afterword to having invented the other celestial bodies in its system for this fiction—including Per Ardua, the planet our protagonist and his fellow detainees are unceremoniously deposited on shortly. Initially, Yuri is
[...] disoriented, bewildered—too mixed up [...] to be either fearful or excited about setting foot on this alien world. Maybe that would come later. Or not. After all, countless generations had dreamed of reaching Mars, and that had turned out to be a shithole.
Cumulatively, the colonists number in the high hundreds, but they’re soon separated into groups of no more than fourteen, and even these numbers are quickly whittled down. Abandoned incredible distances from one another without the slightest hint of supervision, the men amongst Yuri’s makeshift community set about killing one another for “access” to the women. A foolproof plan, I’m sure...
Throughout this period of fear and upheaval, Yuri does his best to keep himself to himself—as does another press-ganged Per Arduan: Mardina, a crewmember of the Ad Astra who was cruelly thrown to the wolves, as it were, after a murder on the shuttle down to the surface left Yuri’s group biologically unbalanced.
Years pass in this manner. Years in which it becomes clear that they really are on their own in an unchangeable alien landscape. Mardina won’t wholly give up hope, but eventually, she and Yuri break away from the other incomers, and start thinking about the unthinkable... about putting down roots. Ahoy, existential crisis!
Inside his head, out of sight of any unseen cameras, unheard by any hidden microphones, there were days when Yuri felt overwhelmed by a kind of black depression. Maybe it was the static nature of this world, the sky, the landscape, the stubbornly unmoving sun. Nothing changed, unless you made it change. Sometimes he thought that all they were doing was no more meaningful than the marks he used to scribble on the walls of solitary-confinement cells in Eden. And when they died, he supposed, it would all just erode away, and there would be no trace they had ever existed, here on Per Ardua.
Ultimately, Yuri and Mardina do find reasons to keep on keeping on. I won’t give them away, except to say that our protagonist becomes fascinated with the alien flora and fauna of Per Ardua:
Everything living was built out of stems here. Even the huge forest trees were stems grown large for the main trunk; even their leaves proved to be nothing but more stems, specialised, distorted in form, jointed together, supporting a kind of webbing. The stems themselves [...] were assembled from something like the cells that comprised terrestrial life. It was as if on Per Ardua complex life had developed by a subtly different route than on Earth. Rather than construct a complex organism direct from a multitude of cells, Arduan cells were first assembled into stems, and the life forms, from builders to trees to the big herbivores and carnivores of the plains and forest clearings, were all put together from the stems, as if fabricated from standard-issue components.
A number of other narrative threads are in play in Proxima. We spend several tremendously memorable chapters in the company of Angelia 5941:
[...]a disc spun of carbon sheets, a hundred metres across and just a hundredth of a millimetre thick. Yet she was fully aware, her consciousness sustained by currents and charge stores in the multilayered mesh of electrically conductive carbon of which she was composed.
Angelia put me in mind of “Malak,” the bravura Peter Watts short story in Engineering Infinity, and though Baxter doesn’t go as far, his efforts to make this artificial perspective sympathetic are nevertheless effective.
Then there’s Stephanie Kalinski, the daughter of the scientist who assembled Angelia, and her identical twin, Penny. Stephanie, however, doesn’t believe in Penny. Before she ventured into an ancient Hatch discovered in the mantle of Mercury, she lived the life of an only child. Afterwards, it is as if her past has been rewired; as if history itself has shifted to fit around her inexplicable sister.
A fantastic concept, excellently executed, and it says a lot about Proxima that this is at best a secondary plot point. Its themes are perhaps heavy-handed—doors open, don’t you know?—but Baxter’s new novel is so gleefully full of ideas that it’s easy, in the moment, to overlook its blunter beats. Said attitude extends to some awkward, and not entirely necessary infodumping, which the author inserts insouciantly into various conversations. I ever so wish he’d resisted this, though the more fantastical aspects of Proxima are mostly bolstered by their basis in scientific fact.
Narratively, the story of Yuri and Mardina journeying across this weird new world is very Dark Eden indeed, and as with Chris Beckett’s Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel, the sense of wonder Baxter effects again and again in the course of exploring the unknown is emblematic of science fiction at its finest.
Sadly, one of the genre’s weaker points comes through, too; all too often, Proxima is all head and no heart. It lacks, alas, an emotional core—though there’s certainly room for one through Yuri. But Baxter has him play his cards so close to his chest that we never really feel like we know him. We may well come to care for him, but this is simply a by-product of spending so long in his company.
Be that as it may, the biggest problem with Proxima is dwarfed by the sheer impetus of its author’s intellectual ambition, which extends to asking and answering pressing questions about humanity’s past; up to and including the origin of the species, indeed. There’s so very much going on, a veritable spree of ideas, and so many of these succeed beyond my wildest dreams — see the builders, the poles of Per Ardua, the kernels Stephanie studies, not to mention the gathering, Paul McAuley-esque conflict between the opposing forces of this future—that picking holes in this awesome novel seems particularly mean-spirited.
Make no mistake: Proxima is immensely entertaining and eminently accessible science fiction which builds towards a catastrophic, cold war of the worlds conclusion that is both breathtaking and bone-chilling. For fans of the genre Stephen Baxter has brought so much to since the Xeelee Sequence, not reading it is not an option. Ultimately, Ultima can’t come soon enough.
Proxima is available September 19th from Gollancz
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.