Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Proxima by Stephen Baxter


*You'd Better Believe There Are Spoilers*

Goddammit, Stephen Baxter, I'm trying! I've been trying to like you since I read an early book and thought the characters were so cardboard I couldn't get through it. (No idea what book that is now.) I enjoyed the first book you and Terry Pratchett wrote together. I mean, we share a last name. Arbitrarily, that feels like it should mean something.

But dude, you're just not meeting me half-way. You include colonization plans that make NO FUCKING SENSE. You use rape all the time to denote "villain." Your characters rarely have any actual connection to any other characters. When they do, they're brutally torn apart. This is a bleak view of human nature. I can deal with short-sightedness. I can deal with a certain level of cynicism. But this is more atomization and alienation than I can deal with.

(Also, you held off on a realization that I think you should have revealed in this book, because by the time a reader gets to your next one, it's likely to fall flat. Don't hold on to your toys. Go for the aftermath.)

I just...I really didn't like this book. I tried. Goddammit, I tried valiantly. There are brief flashes of good things here, but then something else would happen that would throw me into a rage, and spending large swathes of a book being irritated as fuck is not really the state you want me in if you want me to read any more of your books.

So, part one. The ridiculous colonization plans. Look, I have no problem with the idea that governments trying to make colonization plans would be short-sighted. That they'd be cutting corners. That they'd make silly decisions. I just can't believe those decision would be this short-sighted, this ridiculous, and this deliberately cruel. Like, it's not even accidental cruelty. This is deliberate sadism for NO FUCKING REASON.

If you're trying to claim a planet before the Chinese can get there, it's in your interest to have thriving settlements there when the other side arrives. Not to drop your colonists in groups of fourteen people, geographically isolated, and tell them women as baby machines and incest is the way to go! Why? Why would you do that? Why would you tell the women they all have to get pregnant and thus perhaps leaving a workforce of seven people. (If they were all immensely pregnant at the same time.) Why would you leave people with nothing in positions that mean that any time a person dies, the population of their group is almost literally decimated?  Larger groups in three or four spots would make far more fucking sense. 

Just...who came up with this? Not anthropologists. Not policy-makers. Not doctors. Not even bureaucrats who are entirely remote from the world. Dear lord, this kept making me angry. I can see short-sighted. I love, for instance, Spider Robinson's take on how corporations might cut corners on colonization in the book he wrote from Heinlein's notes, Variable Star. This is just beyond my suspension of disbelief.

(Did I mention that all the colonists for this first ever colony were pressganged? Because no one wants to colonize! The fuck? If this were the hundredth colony, I might buy it. Not the first.)

And we haven't even started to talk about the rape.

Hey guys! You'll be glad to know that you're all burgeoning rapists and that if you were dropped on a planet and had to suffer a year or even a few months without sex, you'd go crazy and kill people who you thought would stand in your way of raping a few women!

Because it's not one guy. It's three guys on the spaceship (that we see) when the gravity goes out. (One is killed later by the woman he raped.) It's, in one group of fourteen, two guys after a couple of months of not getting their rocks off, killing four or five people to get to one woman. It's, a couple years after that, in the SAME GROUP, one other guy killing two to try to get to rape one other woman. It's, a few years after that, when the only two people to survive from this group travel with their daughter and find other people, that they run into one group run by women, and one run by, I shit you not, cannibal rapists. 

These are bad guys. There's no ambiguity here. But rape is used as a shorthand to denote "villain," and frankly, Stephen Baxter, fuck right off. Science fiction is a diverse place these days. You may have female readers who don't need that much sexual violence in their reading. You may have guys who don't enjoy the assumption that under every guy's skin is a slavering rapist who will murder on a whim.

And that points to a larger problem with the book - the almost complete lack of genuine human connection between any of the characters. None of them care about each other. They'll work together, but connection? Nope. Well, that's wrong. There are three strong human connections between family members, and in every case, they're irreparably ripped apart. That's a little bleak, isn't it? 

Just keep isolating people, over and over. On the planet, and apparently just because the greater authorial voice decides. Oh, and make sure to add in some rapists.

That's pretty much where I want to leave it, except for one thing - we're repeatedly told that the main character's name is not his name, and it's never revealed during the book. It becomes pretty apparent by the end that the name of the person who was made into the AI Earthshine is probably Yuri's real name, but instead of ever giving us that payoff in this book, when it would mean something, it's put off. Presumably that revelation will happen later, but you can't tell me that a delay of months or years between when people might read these two books would make it a better payoff later. You got dramatic reveals? Get to them. This one is interesting, but there's no real reason to withhold it.

So, yeah. I didn't like this book, and I was more irritated because there were flashes of good storytelling in there, in between the bouts of rage it provoked. I'm out. I'm done. I might read The Time Ships just so I can finish my read of the Hugo winners and nominees, but I'm not on board for Ultima.

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