Epic, cosmic wonders in Stephen Baxter’s Proxima

Stephen Baxter‘s Proxima is an epic hard science fiction story of cosmic wonders, set in the 22-23th century solar system and on a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri.

Often considered as the closest successor of Arthur C. Clarke, Baxter is a master of unabashedly hard science fiction, focused on epic visions of scientific wonders in a vast universe. Baxter is one of my top favorite science fiction writers (Clarke has always been the top one).

“The universe is full of wonder,” writes Baxter in a tribute to Clarke. “[T]hrough the nuts-and-bolts technologies of spacecraft and radio telescopes we reach out for such wonder. Many authors have struggled to express these great and contradictory perspectives. But none, surely, have succeeded so well as Arthur Clarke.”

Like Clarke, Baxter is often accused of preferring cold, imaginative Big Ideas to warm, fuzzy human emotions, or something like that, you know, “male reductionist SF” and all that pathetic nonsense. I don’t think Big Ideas are cold – on the contrary, the visions of Clarke and Baxter give me beautiful, powerful “cosmic” emotions, and this is the main reason why I read science fiction. I know today’s people in this world already, and I read science fiction because I want to know future people and alien things in other worlds. I don’t think Baxter’s human characters are cold or under-developed. Rather, they are not over-developed – their inner emotions don’t take the focus away from the momentous unfolding of planetary and cosmic events, and they stick to their role of tiny motes in a vast, mysterious, awesome universe. But aren’t we all?

Proxima published in September 2013, is one of Baxter’s best novel so far. It will be followed by a sequel, Ultima.

The Earth and the solar system are in a permanent state of cold war, divided in zones of UN and Chinese influence. The inner solar system, within the orbit of the Earth, is controlled by the UN, while the outer solar system, besides some run down UN colonies on Mars, is controlled by China. The UN political system is “benevolently authoritarian” (whatever that means – I don’t think benevolent and authoritarian are compatible). The world is recovering, or so they say, from the excesses of the free-wheeling, wasteful “Heroic Generation” of the 21-22th centuries.

Apparently, the Heroic Generation damaged the environment with unchecked energy consumption and ambitious planetary engineering schemes, and started to develop artificial intelligences too smart to be safe. In the oh-so-benevolent society of the following century, where order is kept by armed thugs in uniform (they are called “Peacekeepers”), the sons are often punished for the sins of their fathers.

The Chinese political system is probably equally authoritarian, but they are philosophical about it. A Chinese officer explains:

“‘We have philosophers exploring ways of ensuring individual freedom within a tightly constrained collective system… [instead] of excessive individual freedom kept in check by excessive policing.”

An important difference between Baxter and Clarke is that Baxter’s outlook is less optimistic. Both authors develop super technologies and take humanity to the stars, but while Clarke’s future is essentially a linear progression, Baxter’s future is much more troubled, with major roadblocks and setbacks, suffering and catastrophic events. I am afraid that Baxter’s future seems more plausible.

Yuri, a refugee from the time of the Heroic Generation, was cryonically frozen by his parents in the late 21th century. Apparently his parents – we don’t learn much about them, but there are hints that they may have been powerful persons – wanted to ship their young son to the future to protect him from some kind of retribution. But the scheme doesn’t work out too well: when Yuri wakes up in the 22th century, he is first sent to an outpost of the UN on Mars, halfway between a bare-bone colony and a prison, and then placed with other involuntary colonists on a starship en route to the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, the closest star.

The “Ad Astra” starship is powered by “kernels,” mysterious objects recently discovered by the UN’s International Space Fleet (ISF) buried in the rock of Mercury, perhaps the products of alien technology. The kernels, programmable wormholes, can extract energy from remote places – for example from high-energy astrophysical events – and take the starship to Proxima Centauri in only a few years at near-light speed.

Another starship en route to Proxima, launched a few years before “Ad Astra” by a light sail, has a crew of one – Angelia, an advanced artificial intelligence running on a programmable matter substrate. These things are kind of illegal, but of course the state doesn’t have to follow its own rules. At launch, Angelia assumes the shape of a sail, hundred kilometers wide with a thickness of only a few microns. In interstellar space, Angelia reconfigures herself as a long thin needle pointing to Proxima, to reduce the chance of high-speed collision, and as an extra safety measure she splits her consciousness into a myriad of small programmable matter droplets distributed along the needle. But she doesn’t know that the mission plan requires the sacrifice of most copies of herself for communications and deceleration. The treatment of Angelia seems very ruthless, but the rights of AIs are not high on anyone’s agenda.

Before launch, in a Mercury facility dedicated to kernel physics and interstellar launches, Angelia assumed the shape of a young woman and became a friend of 11 years old Stephanie (she prefers Stef), the daughter of a project scientist, a typically “cold” Baxter heroine (needless to say, I totally love Stef) who will dedicate her life to studying the kernels.

“Stef wasn’t too clear what a ‘kernel’ was. But she was interested in it all, the different kinds of ships, the experimental engineering she’d glimpsed at her father’s laboratories back home on the outskirts of Seattle, the rumours of these energy-rich kernels being brought up from deep mines on Mercury… she’d heard hints that these kernels they’d found on Mercury, and which were going to power the I-One, were actually much more exotic than anything her father was working on.”

The novel alternates between the story of Yuri and his fellow involuntary colonists marooned on the habitable planet Proxima C (they will call it “Per Ardua”) under the dim light of Proxima Centauri, and a cold war solar system with a growing tension between the UN, excluded from the resources of the outer system, and China, without access to the kernels.

Stef, now a top kernel physics researcher in a laboratory run by the ISF on the far side of the Moon, becomes involved in interplanetary intrigue as a science adviser to UN politicians and powerful movers and shakers – billionaire Sir Michael King and Earthshine, an advanced artificial intelligence emerged at the time of the Heroic Generation, now too influential and powerful to be contained by the state. Earthshine is unique among the three “Core AIs,” because he originated as a human mind upload.

“There was concern that the AIs, being non-human after all and running on an entirely different substrate, would not share humanity’s concern for its own well-being, and would pursue different agendas. So a new approach to emulating human-level AI was tried out. Volunteers were sought – or rather, the hyper-rich of the Heroic Generation competed for places… They opened up my head and modelled the hundred billion neurones, the quadrillion synapses, in a vast software suite that was itself state-of-the-art. It was done by nanoprobes crawling through my skull… On some level I remain human enough.”

Though Earthshine is actually a combination of nine different human uploads, he feels partly human and retains part of the self of his main original. There are hints, missed by other reviews that I have seen, that the identity of Earthshine’s original may be very relevant to the story, and I look forward to finding out in Ultima.

Proxima Centauri
Proxima Centauri (Hubble)

Meanwhile among the stars, Yuri and the other colonists learn how to survive on the alien Per Ardua world, under the perpetual light of Proxima Centauri (the planet is tidally locked to the star), surrounded by strange, photosynthetic, intelligent life forms halfway between plants and animals. Once the colonists are left on the planet in scattered little groups, internal fights and murders start immediately, a Lord of the Flies drama among the stars. Yuri’s group is assisted by a “colonisation unit” (ColU), a rover-like “swiss knife” sentient robot and one of the nicest characters in the story. The colonists are supposed to reproduce and populate the planet before the Chinese come in force. Yuri and Mardina, the only other survivor in their group, grudgingly comply and give birth to a baby girl, Beth, before finding and joining other groups of colonists.

The epic struggle of the colonists, the vivid and unforgettable scenery of Per Ardua, both on the day-side of the planet and under the stars on the frozen night-side, and the strange native life and intelligent aliens, are top class science fiction that would fill a dedicated book. In Proxima they share a relatively compact novel with equally compelling visions of a – too believable – future solar system, and super science. I am sure many readers will impatiently wait for the sequel Ultima – I certainly do.

Back in the solar system, Stef is sent to Mercury to study a recently discovered alien device, buried hundreds of kilometres deep. The strange, impossible “Hatch,” powered by mysterious space-time engineering, seems able to open conduits to other places, other times, and alternate realities.

“Evidently we are dealing with some distortion of space and time. There may be some kind of machinery in the mouth of the pit – exotic matter of some kind, perhaps, or a tremendous gravitational engine.”

The discovery is momentous, but the solar system is on the brink of war. On Earth, the Moon, Mercury, the awesome Obelisk city, capital of the Chinese Mars, Ceres, the hub of China’s space development in the asteroid belt, and aboard spaceships, UN and Chinese scientists and diplomats assisted by Earthshine and the Core AIs work frantically to avoid war, while the military prepare for the worst.

When another Hatch is found on Per Ardua, a stellar gateway between the solar system and Proxima Centauri is open. It permits to travel back and forth at the speed of light, but also to export to the stars the upcoming war in the solar system. There are indication that immensely old and powerful cosmic intelligences – masters of space and time – may be involved. For this, and many other deliberately loose ends, we will have to wait for the sequel Ultima. I can’t wait!

This article was republished on io9 as “Take a wild trip to our nearest stellar neighbor in Proxima