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Steele: The emperor of Mars
Reed: Monkey do
Beckett: The peacock cloak
Friend: Voyage to the moon
Tambour: Dreadnought Neptune
Baxter: Earth III
Steele writes simple, straightforward stories without much convolution or depth, but never trivial stories. It's one of the things I really like about his writing. He may not break any new ground or blow your mind with wild ideas, but in compensation, he grounds his stories deeply in the human condition. Though I understand why critics prefer stories with more literary chops that attempt to expand our genre (including being new purely for the sake of being new), there's also a need for writers like Steele who simply tell good stories about realistic people who you want to care about.
Here, the focus of the story is on the kind of psychological issues future colonists will face, particularly during the early days when colonies are just getting started. Currently, we don't hear about astronauts developing significant psychoses or even going outright mad because they're so intensively screened—with an intensity that goes far beyond that experienced by just about anyone other than the guys who hold the launch keys for nuclear missiles. In the future, when the stakes are lower ("just a few lives", after all) and the selection process is run by corporations rather than governments, the screening will be good enough to bypass legal problems, but probably no more than that. It's not unreasonable that (as Steele suggests) up to 5% of the workers will experience sufficiently severe psychiatric symptoms they must be shipped home. The difficult living conditions will only exacerbate the problem.
Though I've read a fair bit of psychology, and (possibly more importantly) have spent more than 40 years observing the people around me, I don't claim to be an expert in psychology. All I can say is that Steele gets the details right: his descriptions of Jeff's slide into madness ring true; in addition, everything seems reasonable in the context of what I've read, seems self-consistent, and seems consistent with my experience of other people. Since we only learn of Jeff's situation through the base commander's narration, there's a certain distancing effect: we don't really feel what Jeff is going through, and must imagine it. (Rewriting the story in first person voice and comparing the two versions would be an interesting exercise!) That's a reasonable consequence of seeing Jeff's story from the outside. As the commander notes, responding to a loss of the magnitude Jeff has experienced by saying "I understand what you're going through" would be "ridiculous", and saying "I know how you feel" would be "insulting". It's what we all say to try and make someone feel like we understand and empathize, but unless we actually have gone through the same experience, empty words can do more harm than good.
The way Jeff is treated by the base psychologist is both humane and in synch with what I know about the modern attitude towards mental illness, namely that it's acceptable to let someone use harmless delusions to protect themselves while their mind heals from a trauma, but that eventually they must face that trauma and go through the painful process of dealing with it. Jeff goes through a process similar to that of Emperor Joshua Norton, except that he survives. Steele handles this situation as sympathetically as Neil Gaiman handled Norton in one of his Sandman tales.
Steele has a well-earned reputation for getting the science right, and on the whole, he succeeds better here than most Asimov's authors. The only details he may have gotten wrong were related to water. Drilling for water on Mars is a reasonable and necessary strategy, but I'm not confident an "artesian" well would work. Such wells require liquid water under pressure. If water ice is sufficiently thick, its weight would cause liquid water to form below it (which is what happens under glaciers), and the pressure of the overlying ice would force that water to the surface under pressure. Whether the ice is thick enough to create that pressure and whether it would remain liquid long enough to pass through the pipes without freezing and collect in containers seems doubtful at Martian temperatures. A more serious error is suggesting that the colony's greenhouses would provide water to the staff. Unfortunately, greenhouses are a zero-sum or negative-sum game: at best, they return most of the water you put into them, but more often, they lose a significant amount of the water you've imported through miniscule leaks, not to mention each time you open an airlock.
I was briefly confounded by naming the base "Arsia"; I kept trying to shoehorn that into some form of "Ares" or "Arisia" (the SF/F convention). Google to the rescue: the name comes from "Arsia Mons", a Martian volcano.
From a fannish perspective, I like Steele's unquestioned assumption that we'll have bases on Mars and elsewhere off-world within the next 40 years. It's the kind of technological optimism that has led many previous fans into the space program and produced many of the breakthroughs that have led to our current space program, such as it is. But from a pragmatic perspective, I fear that it isn't going to happen. The Biosphere 1 and 2 experiments have proven that we aren't even close to being able to develop self-sustaining closed ecosystems, and what I've read about space tech suggests we'll be doing well to have a somewhat self-sustaining moonbase within the story's timeframe. Sending people to Mars before we have a moonbase up and running is not just unreasonable; it's playing Russian roulette with the lives of the astronauts. Our current technology simply isn't up to the task.
Still, this is just quibbling over details. At the heart of Emperor is a classic SFnal story about humans struggling to survive and to eventually thrive against the challenges posed by a difficult environment (a recurring theme of Steele's fiction), and it's as skillfully handled as any of Steele's previous stories. The writing is simple and unornamented, yet it has power to make us emphathize with and care about the characters. Emperor is a lovely portrait of people finding their common humanity by banding together to support Jeff through his illness.
It's also a reminder of the importance of the stories we tell (here, literalized in the physical books that Jeff transcribes from the old DVD) for our survival; stories are not luxuries, but rather necessities, and all cultures revere their storytellers. The English word "pundit" comes from the Sanskrit "pandit", meaning a storyteller who is also like a keeper of cultural and religious wisdom. We need many more such stories by writers who understand both the human condition and technology if we hope to establish colonies beyond our own atmosphere.
Set in an unnamed former French colony in Africa (Côte d'Ivoire? Mali?), Petopia is the story of Aminata, a young Muslim girl who disassembles and recycles outdated Western computers to earn enough cash for her family to survive its grinding poverty. Her parents are both away most of the day, working at menial jobs to make ends meet, while her younger brother Raphael seemingly lazes around the house playing chess. He's old enough to work, but culturally (so we're given to believe from Aminata's account), that won't happen until he matures enough to be considered a man—and she resents his lack of contribution to the family.
All this changes when Aminata discovers "Jelly" amidst the old computers and brings it home. Jelly is an artificial intelligence (AI) pet, formerly some Western child's companion, that resembles a guinea pig. But this is no Furby—Jelly is a sophisticated creature that could probably pass the Turing test; the software updates it wants to download are 17+ terabytes in size (compare that with the ca. 0.5 terabyte or smaller hard drive on current computers). Jelly wants to be returned to its owner, who used it under license to the eponymous Petopia, but clearly that can't happen: Aminata and her family couldn't afford the postage, but more importantly, Jelly proves to be unexpectedly helpful.
The context now established, events proceed: [spoiler] We learn that Raphael is not the layabout we suspected; instead, he's been hustling chess, and earning significant money doing so. He has also been spending time (presumably at Internet cafés) learning about computers, and he's sufficiently emotionally mature to be willing to spend his hard-earned money bribing his father out of the grasp of corrupt local cops who have beaten the older man severely—enough to hospitalize him.
The story environment is credibly established: it fits well with what I've read of the offloading of Western wastes to developing countries, where it both sustains and endangers many impoverished people. The characters, though not extraordinary, are sufficiently sympathetic that we want to find out what happens to them. In the end, they achieve something like a happy ending; though they lose their home and end up out on the street, and their father is hospitalized and unable to provide for the family, both children end up in a Christian mission school that will presumably educate them and lead them to a brighter future.
Unfortunately, the story fails for me in several key areas. First, the crisis and climax of the story revolve around the children's parents, but because we only meet them through Aminata's brief descriptions, we never learn enough to develop any empathy for them. As a result, the dramatic tension largely disappears; we don't really feel the crisis (the kids seem to be surviving just fine on their own) and therefore don't feel much emotional release when it's resolved. Second, Jelly is clearly the Mcguffin (perhaps the deus ex machina) that drives the plot and solves everyone's problems. Petopia is almost a "shaggy dog" [sic] story in that sense, except that it's not intended to be funny.
Last but not least, the story's name suggests its most serious problem: Petopia has nothing to do with the story or the characters, except to provide a reason for Jelly's existence. That suggests the story arose as a cool idea (an AI pet), and that the story was developed around that idea rather than evolving organically from the characters and situation. To some extent, all fiction is manipulative; as authors, we choose the situation for our characters and how it will resolve. The best fiction hides that manipulation well enough that we won't see it unless we look. Here, the mechanisms are visible. The result is a story that reads more like the establishing scene for a novel that will chronicle Aminata's difficult journey out of poverty rather than something self-contained.
Yet Another Writer Story, and not one with a particularly new type of writer protagonist, but in the hands of a pro, even that familiar backdrop can become the canvas that supports something more interesting. Here, Reed takes that old chestnut about a million monkeys with typewriters, and runs with it. When you're running down a steep hill, you have to wave your arms to keep your balance, and Reed handwaves like a master, along the way getting in a few sly digs at writers.
Billy, our narrator, is a struggling genre writer, churning out forgettable novels such as Rhesus Planet. He's jaded, disillusioned, sullen, resentful at the success of others, and clearly a hack—nothing new here—but seems to be selling enough books that we don't read of landlords banging down his door, or of him surviving on Ramen noodles. (Reed hints that the occasional cheque from his mother may help.) As part of the research for Rhesus Planet, he buys a pet monkey ("Spud") from the local petshop, and when he can't return it after completing his research, it becomes his annoying room-mate. Spud perches behind him, critical of his lame attempts to write and his more vigorous attempts to avoid writing, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "monkey on your back". This also alludes to "monkey see, monkey do", as we soon discover.
Billy's one attempt at a literary novel, Dam of the Unconscionable, is both a tongue-in-cheek self-allusion by Reed (dam = a mature woman) and a pun on the barriers to publishing material of the quality of monkey "do" (poop). That kind of delightful wordplay is abundant, yet not overdone; my favorite quips include "never condescend to a monkey... turns out the little fuckers are clever", "I've always been a hybrid and the world resents a literary novelist", and "the small press wouldn't even give my money back" (i.e., a vanity press, not a real publisher). There are occasional awkwardnesses in wording towards the end, but on the whole, it's fluidly clever writing.
We're set up initially to see Spud potentially becoming Billy's muse, but Reed's clever sleight of hand soon inverts that expectation: to keep Spud entertained, Billy gives him an old laptop and sets him to typing, thereby becoming Spud's muse, after a fashion. Surprisingly, Spud can actually write, though not well at first; when Billy workshops some of the monkey's writing, Spud turns out to be "too thin-skinned about criticism to be a real writer" and goes off to sulk. That rings painfully true to anyone who's workshopped their stories. This is only one of many such allusions that are true to the surface story, but that also serve as a sly dialogue with the professional writer. All gently enough handled you can take the hint, or leave it, and still enjoy the story.
Billy brings Spud back to writing by installing novel-writing software that proves to be just what the monkey ordered. The result will surprise nobody: Spud succeeds far beyond anyone's expectations, becoming a best-selling novelist who cranks out "best-selling potboilers" for legions of admiring fans. Presumably, they're as formulaic as one might expect from stories based solely on the advice of software, but that's left implicit. Meanwhile, Billy ("electronic miracles are not for me, for I am an artist") quietly builds up a murderous resentment as the protégé far outdoes the master. This won't end well, unless Spud is smart enough to see what's coming.
On one level, there's nothing much here apart from an entertaining tale with much clever wordplay. On another level, Monkey Do is an often-pointed satire of the nature of writing and commercial success, and it succeeds nicely by transforming a comfortable, nearly threadbare, scenario through a few new twists, a whole lot of attitude, and considerable élan.
An emerging sub-genre of stories, perhaps even a new new (new!) New Wave, is exploring the future and implications of virtual reality. This dates back at least as far as Gibson's Neuromancer and its spiritual brethren; more recent examples include Zelazny and Lindskold's Donnerjack, Stross' Glasshouse and Accelerando universe, and Walter Jon Williams' Implied Spaces and This is Not a Game.
Peacock has an intriguing structure: for much of the story, we never meet the protagonist at its center, one Fabbro, who has created a densely, magnificently detailed virtual world and installed seven near-clones of himself (each emphasizing a slightly different personality trait). Instead, we must infer him from the fingerprints he leaves on his creation. Initially, this pocket universe seems to exist due to the "baleful history of the vast and vacant universe in which Fabbro was born" and in which he still lives: he creates a benign world in which at least some instance of himself and others can seek beauty.
This initially seems the kind of simplistic, narcissistic naiveté that leads otherwise intelligent people to believe their clone would have their identical personality, or that cloning themselves as the opposite sex would create their perfect lover. But it soon becomes clear the virtual world is more of Fabbro's thought experiment: each virtual clone is, though an exact copy of his knowledge at the time of their creation, distinct, and diverges from their initial state as they are shaped by their subsequent actions.
We soon learn the inevitable (no spoiler here): despite early protestations of wanting to work together to create something fine and wonderful, the core personality of Fabbro (the obsessive desire that permits the creation such a detailed world) cannot be denied—and neither can sibling rivalry. Each of the clones, and particularly Tawus (the narrator), feels compelled by their nature go forth and shape their world. This leads to competition, war and empires, and eventually the death of their sister-clone Cassandra. This becomes a thought-provoking meditation on personal identity, how we are shaped by events, and how the best intentions may not turn out as we planned.
Peacock parallels and draws strength from the rich Judeo-Christian creation myth. Fabbro, the Creator, creates a pastoral paradise ("Arcadia", as his Tawus-self observes; almost certainly intentionally, also a place name in many video games). Tawus becomes his Lucifer (he even uses the word "rebellion"), and by bringing light (technological progress) to the pastoralists without the mercy and other gentle virtues of his fellow clones, he forces them onto the same often-horrific path real-world history followed. Paradise is lost, until an older, wiser, sadder Fabbro enters his own creation right near its ending to set things right.
As Armageddons go, this one will disappoint those hoping for sturm and drang. Fabbro has returned not to scour his lands with avenging armies, but rather to seek reconciliation with all the damaged people of his creation. By all evidence, he succeeds, and Tawus, the last unreconciled soul, faces a terrible dilemma: whether 'tis nobler to reign in Hell (by destroying Fabbro, as the eponymous peacock cloak counsels, playing the roles of Eden's serpent and Tawus' pride), or to reconcile. He chooses the latter, though it's a near thing, and it's a poignant, wistful, and hopeful ending to the story.
Beckett writes lushly at the start, with abundant adjectives and adverbs—too many, perhaps, for those moderns who prefer Spartan prose. I didn't find this problematic, but I suffer from an unhealthy modifier addiction. As the story progresses, the style morphs into something simpler and more graceful, letting the magnitude of the dilemma facing Tawus and Fabbro speak largely for itself, less obscured by adjectival clutter. Powerful, rich, and subtle stuff.
I'm not at all sure what to make of this story. It has some fascinatingly wacky aliens, who are vaguely insect-like, yet have recognizably human (thus, petty) academic and religious jealousies. It has a classic SFnal "bold scientists exploring the heavens and challenging established religious dogma" vibe, though it's almost an inverted Heinlein tale because the heroic protagonists are all superannuated scientists rather than youngsters. It has more than a whiff of satire about scientific politics, particularly when the scientific ideals are intermingled with (not to say "contaminated by") religious doctrine. It has a charmingly evocative and strange world and atmosphere, with interestingly cynical characters who develop distinctive and three-dimensional personalities (each is flawed in some way).
Yet all these promising ingredients fail to gel. The aliens, despite their odd anatomy, seem too human. It's okay to establish correspondences with humanity, thereby permitting empathy, but there should be something stranger. The exploration of the heavens by the scientists reminded me of the naiveté of early writers such as Verne (who lacked sufficient scientific knowledge to grasp the true perils of spaceflight) and of Brian Stableford's deliberately naïve-retro tales of Elizabethan space explorers aiming for the heavens, only to encounter an alien galactic civilization composed almost entirely of insects (The Plurality of Worlds). The satire is done well enough that it raised a smile, particularly the religious conversion of the mechanist scientist Thithiwith and the mechanist conversion of the religious scientist Tlik, but it doesn't seem to come into focus.
Part of the problem is that Friend provides insufficient detail and description for me to figure out what was really going on. Are these events occurring in what basically amounts to a giant ant farm? That would explain the sun and moon (both apparently mechanical devices) clanking along a groove in the sky, which functions as an impenetrable roof of some sort. But that explanation doesn't fully satisfy, and not because the meaning is left intentionally equivocal.
The most significant problem, and what ends up ruining the story for me, is that Friend does a great job of creating an intriguing story world, an interesting (if timeworn) adventure scenario, and interesting characters, but just when I started really wanting to find out where all this cool stuff was going... the story ends, with no resolution. None of the truth behind the story is revealed, not even in the form of hints that would help us hypothesize a resolution. Our protagonist Thithiwith is stranded in the sky (possibly dead, but probably not), and his young protégé plans to return home, bearing hints of what has really happened. This would be fine if it's chapter 1 of a longer work, but here, it's as if Friend hit the wall, creatively speaking, and had no idea where to go from this point.
As always, I hate to pan a story, but this one disappointed me. Too much promise unrealized.
Tambour skillfully handles the relationship between Eugene, still young enough to dream, and his father Jules, who relearns how to dream by seeing the world through his son's eyes. As a parent, I also cherish those times in the life of my children when I see the light turn on in their eyes. Tambour handles the human context well: packed into a tight space for hours, the desperate people have no reason to hope, and things end badly. The olfactory barrage they face is a nice touch (smell being fiction's neglected sense), as are details such as young Eugene's farts breaking the increasingly awkward silence and getting people talking. Verbal flourishes are rare, and seem to miss the mark; "crooked as a blind man's peanut butter sandwich" sounds good, but it's not hard to align two square pieces of bread without looking. Yet the human focus remains solid right until the end, and sustains the story.
The story's context is clunky and poorly justified: What is the eponymous dreadnought? We never learn. In a military context, dreadnoughts are so powerful they need fear no other ship. That misled me into thinking the desperate rush to board the ship, not even delaying to bring food or loved ones, was a response to invasion. But the desperation proves to be the urge to escape Earth, for reasons unspecified. Why should we believe such a large group, and the many others too slow to get aboard, have all heard of the dreadnought? Why are they so desperate to escape they'll trample and kill each other for the mere chance to board?
From the POV of Jules, many years later, we learn that Eugene became an "important scientist", and the story's theme emerges: the rationalist civilization has focused so obsessively on hard facts that imagination was lost. Eugene's "addiction to the real" (having long forgotten the dreams he once shared with his father) becomes his "weakness"—and physically painful to Jules, who clings desperately to the dream of something better. This harks back to an earlier scene in the ship, when the scientists who snuck aboard discuss neptunium, an artificial element that presumably represents the sterility of scientific endeavor.
If this is the message, it's misguided. Some scientists are boring, but no more so than many artists and writers. Indeed, many of our genre's finest writers are scientists who clearly retain their imagination, ability to dream, and ability to inspire others to dream. At best, this is clumsy stereotyping and a blunt instrument for warning about the downside of replacing imagination with rationality. It's implausible to believe they're mutually exclusive.
[Spoiler] A POV shift explains the mystery: we learn that the "inventiveness and braveness" of the scientists in "undertaking this psychological study have never been fully appreciated". It's hard to imagine an ethics review board approving such research, in which more than half of the participants end up dead. We never learn what they hoped to achieve, why that required such horrific measures, and why this is laudable. This exceeds credibility, and that's a literary blunder: to support serious criticism, the framing metaphor must remain credible. Worse, the POV that has mostly been sympathetic to the people shifts jarringly to that of an abhorrently callous observer who endorses the scientists' indefensible actions despite the body count. That's simply clumsy writing.
There's a potentially interesting story buried here. Though old news, the theme remains worth exploring. But here, story and theme are smothered by clumsy efforts to achieve profundity through a flawed framing context. Dreadnought strives for criticism, but achieves only incoherence.
Earth III is part of a larger sequence, including the story Earth II (Asimov's July 2009) and the novels Flood and Ark. Baxter therefore faces a challenge: he must provide enough context to give us a sense of the situation into which he's dropped us without burying us in infodump. He mostly succeeds. He delivers an enormous amount of setup at the start, but the information mostly emerges naturally through dialogue. There were a few "As you know, Jim..." moments, but not enough to raise my hackles.
The world in which the story takes place is in tidal lock around a red dwarf star; this means that one spot on the equator (here, referred to as The Navel) permanently faces the sun as the planet orbits, whereas a spot on the opposite side (here, referred to as The Antistellar) permanently faces away from the sun. A powerful theocracy rules much of the sunlit side through a combination of religious control and temporal power. Trade communities such as Port Hope (origin of some of our protagonists) resist that power; more distant communities such as Pole (origin of some others) depend so strongly on the more sunlit regions they largely hope to escape their geopolitical maneuverings.
I didn't remember enough of the previous story to have full context, and haven't read either novel, but Baxter drew me in quickly without spoiling the underlying mystery. That mystery involves a ruling theocracy that promotes the notion that everyone is living in a virtual world created by "the Sim Developers", even though we see no sign of computers or software in the world of the story. This would explain many oddnesses, such as why the planet's ecology works (a tidally locked planet would have an "interesting" atmosphere, as I discuss later in this review). We soon learn that the native animals were genetically engineered to serve specific roles (e.g., tilling the soil with plow-like tails, using light to generate photoelectricity) long before humans arrived, and the "substrate" below the surface is a sophisticated engineered substance. Other hints tell us this world is artificial but real; there is historical evidence a small group arrived by spaceship, had a disastrous falling-out that killed all or most of the adults, and left the children (who may have arrived in suspended animation) alone to be raised by the ship's AIs.
Layered atop this scenerio are two stories. First, there is Baxter's witty take on the Trojan War, with Brod (Paris) stealing Vala (Helen) from her father (Elios = Helios = sun = high priest beneath the sun at The Navel) to precipitate a nasty war. In case you missed the allusion, Vala's brother (A)Khilli(es) rages about beneath the walls of Brod's besieged city of Port Wilson, sword in hand, calling Brod to battle. The allusion is both amusing on the surface, and a consequence of Baxter's ongoing fascination with history and historical processes. I've often thought that history is almost fractal in the way its patterns repeat endlessly at both smaller (human) and larger (geopolitical) scales, yet with infinitely diverse variations on that theme.
Here, I particularly liked that in this retelling the tale, Vala (not Brod) is the primary actor: she manipulates events and Brod to ensure that she will escape a stifling future as (in effect) a vestal virgin at The Navel. Ursula LeGuin's novel Lavinia (on my "some day" reading list) retells the Aeniad from a female perspective, something that is all too lacking in modern history; I'd dearly love to see her version of Helen of Troy's story, both for its own sake and as a dialogue with Baxter's version.
The second story is a power grab by the theocracy inhabiting The Navel. Without belaboring the point, they represent enlightenment in both literal (the sun) and theological (their religion) senses, and are a powerful force for central control and conservatism. As was the case throughout most of the history of the Catholic church, this is more about political and economic power than religion, and we soon learn that historical pattern has not changed. In contrast are the (literally and metaphorically) unenlightened Polars, who live in the perpetual semi-dark far from The Navel, and who therefore seek their enlightenment in science and engineering. One thing Baxter does particularly well is to avoid painting this situation in black and white terms; like the story world itself, there is a continuous spectrum from light to dark, and most people inhabit the grey areas.
Elios soon shows he's a skilled practioner of realpolitik, as he siezes on the romance of Brod and Vala to declare war on Brod's home of Port Wilson. Once that settlement has been put back in its place, he confesses the Polars will be next. The Trojan War is now widely believed to have been a real historical event. In that context, claiming Helen's capture by Troy as the motive for the war would have been a cynical ploy by a very astute Greek king to find an excuse to wage war against his competitors, the powerful and wealthy Trojans.
Baxter's prose is simple, straightforward, and gets the heck out of the way. There are few stylistic flourishes, but he draws you comfortably onward, revealing only the details necessary to create a sense of place; you're left to fill in the blanks yourself, but never quite feel shorted, which is a difficult balance to strike. Baxter also spends much more time than most thinking through the consequences of his story's science and culture without burying you in cool details the way some hard SF writers do. He drops enough hints to keep you speculating about the real story, but not so many you trip over them or that he gives away the game.
Last but not least, he deftly creates believable, distinct, likeable characters who are complex and three-dimensional (particularly Elios). Few are Achilles-types who glow like supernovas and will be remembered centuries later, but they're all still interesting in their own ways. The male characters who nominally drive the action (Brod, and Khilli who pursues him literally to the ends of the Earth III in a quest to redeem his sister) are the least-developed characters, and it's nice to see a male author writing strong, believable women who are agents rather than objects to be acted upon.
Describing the settlers' original language as "antique" is an excellent detail. Though languages tend to be stabilized by dictionaries and formal education, linguistic change would nonetheless occur over hundreds of years, particularly once education is controlled by theocrats. The planet's semi-artificial ecology is mostly well done (in a very Nivenesque way), with clever touches such as the symbiotic alien lightmoss (which creates light to nourish terrestrial lichens that break down rock to sustain the lightmoss), as is the fact that the humans and their imports can't eat native plants and animals due to biochemical differences. Most writers neglect such inconvenient details.
Though Baxter is rigorous and careful, there are glitches. Invoking a volcano to heat the atmosphere enough for humans to survive a trip to The Antistellar (opposite the point of maximum starlight) is gimmicky, but justified by the anthropic principle: without the volcano, nobody would contemplate visiting The Antistellar. But to warm the far side of the planet enough for this to be possible, the sunlit side would need to warm uncomfortably, and we don't read of this.
It's not easy to handwave the Polar civilisation, which would require an endless stream of food caravans. On Earth, we can survive in circumpolar regions because spring and summer let plants capture and store solar energy to feed animals, and polar oceans don't freeze year-round; the arctic plants therefore sustain rich animal communities. These conditions don't exist in Baxter's world, so all food must be imported. Yet we don't see these caravans. This could easily fall under the category of not reading about bathrooms (i.e., boring!). Still, 13 words would do the job: "They had to keep pulling off the road to let the caravans pass."
The ecology is more problematic. Lightmoss probably couldn't exist near the poles, even with the mirror birds focusing sunlight on it (clever!); there simply wouldn't be enough light. The forests of trees would be much weirder than Baxter states. Plants must balance gravitropism, which orients them parallel to gravity so they don't fall over, with phototropism, which orients them towards the sun to maximize light capture. With a sun such as ours that changes position both daily and seasonally, gravitropism wins and stems are mostly upright because the sun illuminates most sides of a plant at various times; thus, trees don't bend sharply towards the sun. But with a stationary sun, phototropism wins: plants lean towards the sun to capture as much light as possible. Under these conditions, forests would be both leaning and sparse, otherwise insufficient light would penetrate the trees closest to the sun to sustain photosynthesis by trees behind them. Worse still, all terrestrial plants evolved under a regime of alternating light and dark, and won't develop normally or reproduce without a dark period. You can engineer that away with far-future genetic engineering technology, but it would be very tricky.
Geophysics is also a problem. The tectonic rift the travellers follow to The Antistellar is a clever way to keep warm, but the chemotrophic bacterial communities Baxter describes would be surrounded by communities of larger organisms, just as on Earth. (This world's engineers would have created organisms capable of exploiting this rich resource, or the organisms would evolve on their own.) Scientists used to believe that on a tidal-locked planet, the whole atmosphere would eventually freeze on the nightside. We now believe that heating of the land beneath the sun would cause hot air to rise, drawing in cool air from the poles to replace it, creating enormous convection cells. Here, that would lead to steady (and probably strong, even with a red dwarf sun) winds blowing constantly from the poles). Similar cells would arise in oceans, and both would keep the planet habitable. But we don't read about these winds. Perhaps the world's engineers solved this problem with some kind of heat pump, but there's no hint they did so. [Spoiler] When, at the end, Vala and Tripp restore the forgotten orbital mirror and begin illuminating the planet's dark side with reflected light so life can once more return, it's a neat trick, but with no cold pole to absorb heat transferred from the dayside, the planet will warm dramatically and undergo drastic climate change.
Quibbles aside, Baxter ties all these elements together skillfully, wrapped in a traditional "quest" story, with Tripp of the Polars forming an expedition to The Antistellar as her small group flees the wrath of Khilli. The world's builders have indeed left a technological artefact there. [spoiler] Tripp et al. use a giant orbital mirror to change their world both physically (by reflecting sunlight into the formerly dark regions) and metaphysically (the theocracy's teaching must change). The ending is a bit abrupt, but nonetheless credible and a logical consequence of what came before. It's all sufficiently intriguing and satisfying I'll definitely hunt down Flood and Ark when I have a chance.
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