10 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Ark by Stephen Baxter

Title: Ark

Author: Stephen Baxter

Genre: Science Fiction, Post-Apocalypse

Publisher: Gollancz (UK)
Publication Date: August 2009
Trade Paperback: 416 pages

Stand alone or series: Book 2 in a duology, following Flood.

Why did I read this book: Despite a slow start and a strange sense of complete detachment, I ended up loving Stephen Baxter’s Flood, the first book in this apocalyptic duology. I loved it so much, in fact, that it is on my shortlist of favorite books of 2009. So, when I found out that Ark was being released in the UK this August, I was thrilled – and immediately begged Ana to procure me a copy. And she did. Good Ana. Gooooooood Ana.

Summary: (from amazon.com)
As the waters rose in FLOOD, high in the Colorado mountains the US government was building an ark. Not an ark to ride the waves but an ark that would take a select few hundred people out into space to start a new future for mankind. Sent out into deep space on an epic journey centuries, generations of crew members carry the hope of a new beginning on a new, incredibly distant, planet. But as the decades pass knowledge and purpose is lost and division and madness grows. And back on earth life, and man, find a new way. This is the epic sequel to the acclaimed FLOOD; a stirring tale of what mankind will do to survive and the perfect introduction for new readers to one of SF’s greatest tropes; the generation ship. Written by one of the most significant SF writers of the last 30 years, a man considered to be the heir of Arthur C. Clarke as a writer with a unique ability to popularize science and science fiction for the largest possible audience FLOOD and ARK together form a landmark in modern SF.


I have discovered a new “autobuy” author this year, and Stephen Baxter is his name. I cannot quite explain what it is about his writing that simply works for me. Objectively, I can see that his work is rather verbose and bleak, and at times very dense which can put off many readers. In fact, this often puts me off many authors. But there’s something about his books that hit all the right buttons for me. Perhaps it’s the scope of his writing, blending human elements with the harder elements of science fiction. Perhaps it’s the cool – almost cruel – impassivity he shows his protagonists. Perhaps it’s some mystical, perfect blend of the two that I find irresistible. The point is, I have become a full-fledged fan. Ark, along with Flood easily makes the shortlist of two of my favorite novels of 2009.

Overlapping and following the events of Flood, the first book in this duology, Ark tells the story of the birth and culmination of a top secret project to send a genetically diverse, brilliant group of young humans away from the flooded and dying Earth, to travel that final frontier of space – to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. In a long-shot hope to save the human race and rebuild on an as of yet unknown planet, Ark is the story of how the Ark One was conceived, how it left Earth, and the fate of those on board. While Flood is a dramatic apocalypse novel documenting the systematic flooding and the end of the world by water as a subterranean sea reservoir covered all the land on the face of the planet, Ark is a science fiction story about humanity’s last ditch effort to prevail. Following two main characters, Grace, a dejected, tired and hopeless woman whom readers will remember from Flood, and Holle, groomed since childhood for a chance to get on Ark One, Ark is a visceral, intelligent, tragic, and ultimately hopeful novel about the end of the world, and how humanity endures.

As with Flood, and as I suspect might be indicative of all Stephen Baxter’s work, Ark is a story with an incredible sense of scale and scope. Beginning with a six-year old Holle who makes it to the Colorado Rockies with her father in the year 2025, Ark spans fifty-six nominal years and a distance of over one-hundred light years, to the fate of the remaining members on the Ark in 2081. When a small group of far-sighted and very wealthy men move to Denver as the last stronghold of high land in a flooded America and water-logged world, they learn that the water will not stop rising and decide they have three options for survival: build habitable environments on Earth that will thrive beneath the ever-rising global ocean; build habitable environments on Earth that will survive afloat on the ever-rising global ocean; or leave Earth entirely for a new world. And, when some members (Nathan Lammockson, as you may remember from Flood) pursue the Earth-bound options, a smaller contingent begins diligent work on building a last-ditch honest to goodness spaceship, training children in physics, astronomy, and highly technical and theoretical coursework, while attempting to scan the skies for likely candidates for Earth II. The Ark has a lot working against it – predictions of the exponential water rise say the project must launch by 2041, leaving the scientists and later military less than fifteen years to not only accomplish all this building, but also to create a superluminal warp drive (a way to travel faster than the speed of light, which actually has scientific merit by the use of a “warp bubble,” or Alcubierre Drive) in order to reach a suitable distant planet in the first place. From these technical limitations, Ark follows the actual launch of Ark One, and its journey through space, and all that which befalls the humans on board – encompassing political strong-arming, a revolution, and hopes crushed and reignited.

But beyond the science and technicalities – which are wonderful, informative, and completely believable – Ark is a story about characters. Holle, who has been in the candidate program for the Ark since her childhood, a girl who has studied astrophysics since the ripe age of twelve and military survival protocol at the same time, is our main protagonist. We know Holle intimately from her time as a child and young woman on Earth; her hopes to get on the Ark, her fears that she or some of her fellow candidates might not make it, and the pain of having to leave her father behind. We also see her grow as a character, from a young hopeful idealist to a tough woman who will do what is necessary to keep the people on Ark One, and thereby humanity’s chances for survival, alive. It’s also the story of Grace, who is put on the Ark due to Lily (protagonist of Flood)’s maneuvering and manipulation. Grace too grows from a shell of a woman who cares for nothing, to a loving mother and invaluable member of the Ark crew in their many cold years in transit. Nothing is simple or cookie-cutter here; there is love and friendship, but also bitterness, backstabbing, and passion, all in a roil of human emotion that is compelling and genuine. Stuck on a spaceship for decades, with children born in transit who have never seen Earth or the sunlight who are resentful of the elders’ uncompromising command, things aboard the Ark are messy and destructive. And when they finally reach their destination, other tough decisions must be made.

I loved this book. I loved this book. I’m not exactly sure how else to say it. From the compelling characters, to the science fiction elements, to the balance of hope and despair in equal measure, I loved Ark. I loved Holle and Grace’s narrative, just as I loved the detailed and genuine secondary characters both on the Ark and back on Earth, especially the character of Kelly (ruthless, ambitious leader of the ship), Venus (astronomer and theoretician), and the broken Zane. I loved the hard science aspect, with the development of the warp bubble, the day to day life on the ship, the observations of other star systems and viable candidates for a new home. I loved the writing, the blend of physics, hard science fiction, and compelling plot lines. I loved the emotional turmoil, the self-destructive nature of humanity, and the messiness of survival.

Simply put: I loved this book.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Grace had spent most of her life on the road with Walker City, fifteen years walking with her home on her back, like a snail or a crab. The time before that, when she was younger than five years old and a pampered prisoner of her father’s family in Saudi, was a blur, unreal, as were the years she had most recently spent as another kind of prisoner on Nathan’s liner. Now here she was yet again passed from one stranger’s hands to another.

Only the walking was real, she sometimes thought. Past, future, the vast cataclysm humanity was suffering – none of it mattered if all you could actually do in the world was put one foot in front of another, day after day, kilometre after kilometre. She could just walk away now. Walk off with nothing but the clothes on her back, just as it had been with Walker City. But she had her baby growing inside her, a baby she hadn’t wanted by a ‘husband’ she loathed, but hers nonetheless. She didn’t want to manage the pregnancy on her own.

Gordo said, “They’re lifting.”

The wind from the rotors battered Grace’s face. Lily Brooke leaned out of the chopper and stared down at Grace. She mouthed what looked like, “Forgive me.” Then Thandie pulled her back into the machine, and the bird lifted smoothly.

“Are you OK?”

Grace was angry with herself for showing weakness, angry at Lily for her manipulation and abandonment. She snapped, “What do you think?”

Gordo shrugged. “They left you behind to give you a shot at getting into Ark One. A Chance of a better life than any of them face now, especillay if they’re right that their boat has been sunk.”

“I don’t even know what Ark One is.”

“You’ll find out.”

“I’ll never see any of them again.”

“I guess not.”

“Once again I’m alone, with strangers.”

He sighed, pushed back his peaked cap, and scratched his scalp. “So are we all. The whole world is screwed up, kid. At least here we got something to do.” He looked around. The last dust from the chopper was settling now, and the homeless were pushing back to recolonise the space they had cleared, like water pooling in a dip. In a few minutes there would be no sign that a chopper had landed here at all. “Well, that’s that. Come on, let’s get you out of here.” He released her arm and set off back through the town, towards the waiting cars.

She followed, having no choice.

Additional Thoughts: Stephen Baxter is the author of a number of science fiction novels, including The Time Ships, the Hugo Nominated sequel to H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine.

So far, I have bought this and Evolution, and plan on reading both very soon. Are there any other Stephen Baxter – or otherwise wonderful science fiction books – anyone would care to recommend?

Verdict: While Ark might not be the perfect book for everyone, it was the perfect book for me. I loved it from beginning to end, I couldn’t put it down, I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I finished it. With that said, I give it the highest rating possible – and my first and so far only “10 rating” for 2009. Bravo, Mr. Baxter. Bravo.

Rating: 10 – Perfection

Reading next: Triumff by Dan Abnett


  • Karen Mahoney
    October 1, 2009 at 1:12 am

    Wow! Great review… I almost bought FLOOD last night on your recommendation… I didn’t actually do it (lack of funds), but I think maybe I should. 🙂

  • bob
    October 1, 2009 at 1:47 am

    There’s a lot of really good SF out there. My own faves at the moment include Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon), Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton (Night’s Dwan trilogy) and Iain Banks (any Culture novel). If you haven’t read Raft by Baxter, I’d recommend it. A bizzarely compelling SF premise made very readable by the characters and plot. Worth a look.

  • Niall
    October 1, 2009 at 3:25 am

    You’ve bought two of the best, there, in my opinion, in that they emphasise the epic, Wellsian/Stapledonian side of Baxter’s writing. I’d also recommend Voyage (alternate history about a NASA manned Mars mission in the 1970s and 80s). His major series is the Xeelee Sequence; there’s an omnibus of early books coming out early next year, but I might suggest starting with one of the two Xeelee short story collections, Vacuum Diagrams or Resplendent, to get a sense of the scope of that universe. (And of how Baxter writes at shorter lengths.)

  • Rhiannon Hart
    October 1, 2009 at 4:37 am

    Sorry Tender Morsels, sorry The Dark is Rising, sorry City of Bones, Thea gave this book a ten and now I’m gonna have to procure this series ASAP and you’re going to be neglected a little bit longer. It’s a dystopian thing. You wouldn’t understand.

    (First 10 of 2009! That’s so cool! I can see you’re gonna get me into the harder stuff.)

  • Ana
    October 1, 2009 at 4:49 am

    Oh FINALLY! 😈

    :mrgreen: 😀

    This week has been a good reading week for both of us! *highfive*

  • KMont
    October 1, 2009 at 6:34 am

    This feels like such an intense book! I’m glad you enjoyed it so much but I wonder if it’s too intense for me. Only one way to find out. 😉 I’ll read Flood first of course.

  • Gerd Duerner
    October 1, 2009 at 6:52 am

    Totally agree on your opening, well apart from having Baxter on autobuy; after trying one of his novels and a few of his shorts I found that I fall in the latter category of those that are put off by his style.
    He strikes me as being the typical writing scientist, he’s sure smart but he can’t bring his point across!
    Not to mention that all his characters I read felt kind of liveless, disconnected, to me.

  • Thea
    October 1, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Karen – I can completely understand the sentiment. There are so many books I want to buy, but can’t really justify spending $30 per hardcover. Sigh. I hope you give FLOOD a try! It’s not as good as this one, but still solid despite a slow start and some weaker characterizations. ARK is just…wow. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much.

    Bob – Thank you for the recommendations! I’m making a vow to read and review more science fiction (we’re shamefully lacking in that department!). Adding RAFT to the list, as well as THE REALITY DYSFUNCTION.

    Niall – Thank you!!! I’ve seen the Xeelee books, but wasn’t sure where to jump in. But now I know, and I’ll make sure to try the short story anthos first. (It will definitely be interesting to see how he handles shorter lengths!) And Voyage is in the amazon shopping cart. Thank you!!! I really appreciate the recommendations – there’s a daunting, but exciting, sea of scifi that I really need to get into.

    Rhiannon – Ah, I have a big cheesy grin on my face! FLOOD and ARK are two very cool, very different takes on the apocalypse. I have to warn you though, that FLOOD was hard to get into. The first half of the book wasn’t too great, but the building climax is awesome. By the time I finished it, I was completely won over. And then ARK…well, it grabs you from the opening chapter and doesn’t let go.

    I should say though…I’m kind of an astrophysics dork. I record and save shows like NAKED SCIENCE and THE UNIVERSE. So…that might factor in my feelings of awe and appreciation for ARK.

    Ana – I know! It has been a fantastic week of reading! :mrgreen:

    Kmont – It is very intense. VERY intense. And again, my caveat to Rhiannon holds – FLOOD is not the easiest book to get into. But I think it’s completely worth it, especially with ARK waiting for you to read. I’d be interested to see what you think of these books!

    Gerd – Ahh, well, the thing is, I can completely understand where you are coming from. There IS a lot of dense writing, and a sort of “scientist explaining to the classroom” feel to it (in fact, in ARK there actually is one such scene!). But…even though I can see this objectively as a reader and reviewer, there’s just something about Mr. Baxter’s writing that resonates with me. I can’t explain it. But I completely understand why you aren’t a fan! 🙂

  • Kristen
    October 1, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    The Time Ships is on my to-read pile as well but I haven’t actually read anything by Stephen Baxter yet. I did want to second the recommendation for Iain M. Banks though. The Player of Games by him was one of my very favorite reads last year (and Use of Weapons was excellent too).

  • katiebabs
    October 1, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    *shakes fist at book pimping ways*

  • danielle
    October 1, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    I’ve just read FLOOD and I agree that it’s interesting, but it is kind of an aquired taste. I don’t think I’ll be picking up ARK, but glad you enjoyed =]

  • Thea
    October 1, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Kristen – Ooh, The Player of Games you say? It’s in the amazon cart. :mrgreen: Thank you!

    I can’t wait to see what you think of Stephen Baxter when you get the chance! I really, *really* loved this book. If you couldn’t tell. 😆

    KB – Oh, the book pimping ways, wez proud of them!

    Danielle – Well, if you made it through FLOOD, you OWE it to yourself to read ARK. Seriously, it’s a very, very different book. And much better, in every way. No, I’m not being pushy or bossy or anything. 😈 But yes, I concede that this is probably an acquired taste, or at least one that sings to some people but not to others!

  • CL
    October 5, 2009 at 11:46 am

    You’ve bought two of the best, there, in my opinion, in that they emphasise the epic, Wellsian/Stapledonian side of Baxter’s writing. I’d also recommend Voyage (alternate history about a NASA manned Mars mission in the 1970s and 80s). His major series is the Xeelee Sequence; there’s an omnibus of early books coming out early next year, but I might suggest starting with one of the two Xeelee short story collections, Vacuum Diagrams or Resplendent, to get a sense of the scope of that universe. (And of how Baxter writes at shorter lengths.)

  • Niall
    October 5, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    I can’t help feeling a little … imitated!

  • Thea
    October 5, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Death to spammers!!!!!! LOL. Thanks again Niall.

  • edifanob
    October 12, 2009 at 10:43 am

    I own both books. So far I read FLOOD which left me deeply impressed. After your great review I really look forward to read ARK. Fortunately the book is on my reading list for October.

  • Matt Smyth
    October 28, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Just finished Ark. I thought it was a very good read, it left me curious to find out what happens next…. Which is always a good sign.I would recommend Baxter’s Time Odyssey trilogy written with Arthur C Clarke and also his Destiny’s children series

  • Matt Smyth
    October 28, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    By the way are you sure there wont be a third book after Ark????

  • Thea
    October 28, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    edifanob – I’m so glad you liked FLOOD, and can’t wait to see what you think of ARK!

    Matt – Thanks for stopping by. I definitely understand how you feel – wanting to know what happens next with the different crews. I’m not sure if Mr. Baxter is planning a third novel to follow ARK – man, that would be sweet. I’d love another chapter of the adventure. As of right now, his website only has FLOOD and ARk though. His next writing project is listed as the first in the new “Northland” trilogy, called STONE SPRING….

    Thanks for the recommendations! I really cannot wait to read more of Mr. Baxter’s stuff.

  • Wisdo
    May 11, 2010 at 4:51 am

    If ypou like Baxter read RAFT. Very bizarre setting, really imaginatively fantastical, but also at once readable and compelling, unlike flood – which was a little stiff.

  • md
    June 15, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Baxter is Awesome! I discovered his books only a few years ago and have read almost all of them – so now my problem is waiting for his next one to come out.
    I like his bold ideas that are backed by some real physics (he will even point you to the reference papers at the end of the books). The best Baxter books that I have found are his Manifold Trilogy – Time, Space and Origin. Other exceptional books include Evolution, The Xelee sequence (Flux, Raft, Timelike Infinity, especially Ring and short stories in Vacuum Diagrams) and Destiny’s children – Coalescent, Exultant (a favorite), Transcendent, and Resplendent). This should keep anyone busy for a few months 🙂

  • Rohan
    January 23, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    i’d love to read another Ark movel. I dearly want to know what happened to Holle and the ship…i have a theory that they died soon after.

    I’d also like to know about the initial colonists, as opposed to the short stories on the descendants that SB wrote.

    And finally, why did Lily Brooke have to die? I wanted to know about Earth’s next generation…..

  • Spacedog
    July 9, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Just read both books, and I also can’t stop thinking about the whole story. Amazing.
    Has anyone heard any word of a follow-up? LIke others here, I want to know more about the groups of survivors. If someone sees Stephen Baxter at an event, ask him for a third book!

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