- Proxima Series (#1)
- Published by Gollancz
- First published in 2013
- Hard SF
- 455 pages
Proxima c. A habitable worldjust four light years distant from Earth. Yuri Eden is among the prisoners tasked with settling this newfound wilderness. But will Proxima prove to be a second chance for humanity, or the catalyst for our destruction . . ?
I’ve read bits and pieces of Stephen Baxter’s bibliography, and have roundly enjoyed all of it. In fact, the only book with his name that I haven’t enjoyed has been The Medusa Chronicles, and I’m happy to lay the blame for my dissatisfaction with that one at the feet of co-writer Alastair Reynolds, with whom I have a rather tumultuous history. When it comes to Baxter, the only full novels I’ve read have been his sequels to HG Wells classics. Anyone who can successfully follow The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine is surely worth keeping an eye on. Yet the only original work of his that I’ve read is the short story collection Obelisk, of which I have very little memory. A quick bit of digging informs me that ‘Obelisk’ and some of the other stories in there take place in the universe of Proxima. So where better to start than with this two-part series?
First of all, I love this book. It’s proper, old school, crunchy science fiction, heavily reliant on science as understood at the time of writing, and embracing scientific ideals. As such, it’s a bit of a head-bender at times. There were some points that I completely lost track of what was happening, but I never felt stupid for not understanding the book, and my confusion never got in the way of the story. The scientific discussions just added an extra layer that I occasionally slipped beneath. But when I could keep up with Baxter’s imagination, I was absolutely thrilled by it.
There is some timeline-hopping in Proxima, but it didn’t bother me as much as usual. Simply because there was a massive distance between the two periods. Over the course of a few decades, we see life on Proxima and back on Earth, as humanity teeters on the brink of losing both worlds. The central protagonist, Yuri Eden, straddles the line between the two halves of the story, never quite belonging to either world. It’s an odd book from a character perspective, however, as while most of the opening act is dedicated to Eden and his allies fighting to stay alive, he is side-lined for most of the larger set-pieces in the novel. This is one of those books where the real main character is humanity itself, and is at its best when it is open about that.
In terms of his writing, Baxter is somewhere between Ben Bova and Cixin Liu. Like Bova, he has a love of real science, and there’s palpable excitement with every new innovation. Though I admit, Baxter takes afar bleaker outlook on humanity’s chances than Bova. Just like Liu, Baxter’s novel hinges on magnificent set-pieces. The final act is one of the most gloriously tragic things I have ever read, and there are plenty of more intimate tragedies along the way, as when the fate of a famous human pioneer is finally revealed.
With its epic scale and heavy tone, Proxima won’t be for everyone, but it’s certainly for me. I’ll definitely be picking up Ultima, and the rest of Baxter’s output probably won’t be far behind.
More by Stephen Baxter
The Time Ships
The Massacre of Mankind
Deeper Dive: Spoilers & Cliffhangers
Before diving into Proxima, I thought I knew something about it. Just the one thing I remembered form those short stories. And that was the idea that this book took place in an alternate reality in which Rome never fell. Several chapters into a book about a cold war between China and the UN, and I assumed I’d remembered incorrectly, probably thinking of a different book. But then there’s the final page, in which our protagonists step through an interdimensional doorway and meet a Roman soldier. My initial reaction was to shout Vindication, but that moment passed and I found myself more confused than anything else.
Up until this point, there have been a few hints of history taking different paths, but only in the idea that personal lives could be rewritten, and different individuals born and died according to a change in the timeline. Overall, this last minute turn of events comes out of nowhere. The book would be complete without it, and it suggests a very different environment for Ultima. Whether or not the series can hold together with such a change remains to be seen.
Leave a Reply