The novel “Proxima” by Stephen Baxter was published for the first time in 2013. It’s the first book in the Proxima series.
When Yuri is awakened from hibernation, he finds himself in a place and time that’s very different from the one he grew up in. Even worse, when someone finally tells him what’s going on, he finds out that he ended up in a group of people selected for an expedition to a planet in the Proxima Centauri system.
Stephanie “Stef” Kalinski is a scientist who is investigating the mystery of the kernels, objects discovered by humans and exploited as spaceship engines. Through trial and error, it was possible to understand how they work in an empirical way, but nobody knows what they really are and above all the principles that explain why they work. The answers could be on the planet Mercury.
The beginning of “Proxima” immediately throws the reader in the middle of the various subplots, a bit like Yuri is sent to prepare for the journey to the Proxima Centauri system without knowing what’s happening to him. Indeed it takes a while to understand the great story that is told in this novel, also because it embraces entire decades and contains a number of flashbacks.
As he already did in his other novels, Stephen Baxter included in “Proxima” several ideas that are developed more or less slowly. This doesn’t mean that the pace is slow but is the consequence of their complexity. This is a novel in which many things happen both at the level of individual characters and of entire planets with many twists and interconnections among the various subplots and the various ideas so the novel’s length is needed for the author to tell it all.
The main subplots are the ones following Yuri and Stephanie, two extremely different characters in stories that for a long time seem to diverge. A third subplot that has really less room follows an artificial intelligence whose history helps to better understand certain events prior to the ones told in the novel.
Yuri is somehow a misfit, awakened from hibernation after many years to be used as a guinea pig in a colonization experiment of a planet in the Proxima Centauri system. Soon it’s clear that he’s not exactly what he appears and references to his past offer Stephen Baxter the way to include some information about the chaotic events that led to the situation of the 22nd century.
Yuri’s story is very linked to the colonization of the planet, which will be called Per Ardua, on which he’ll be dumped together with other people. There various native life forms live and their progressive discovery is an important part of the novel because Yuri and his mates are left on a still unexplored world of which humans basically just know that it’s habitable.
Stephanie is a brilliant scientist who investigates the mystery of the kernels. That idea would be enough for other writers for a whole series of novels, for Stephen Baxter it’s certainly important but he uses it also as an starting point for further discoveries that lead to some of the major twists of “Proxima”.
The great story developed around the various protagonists concerns all of humanity and the possible developments of the next two centuries. It’s not a very positive portrait because the flashbacks concern the destruction of the Earth’s resources and “Proxima” is also about a cold war between China and the other world powers that threatens the planet.
In the chapters set on the spaceship traveling to Per Ardua and later on the planet the behavior of many characters are also negative. Interpersonal relationships are based above all on overpowering other people and collaboration is an exception. On the planet, murder is normal, so much so that one wonders what’s the point of the expedition.
The presence of many really unpleasant characters can add difficulties to the reading of a novel full of technical and scientific elements. Anyone who already read some novel by Stephen Baxter knows what to expect, that is, a story full of ideas that are developed with sometimes surprising plots.
Stephen Baxter is one of the most important hard science fiction authors and in my opinion “Proxima” is a stimulating novel for those who appreciate this subgenre. It has, so to speak, a half ending in the sense that the various subplots reach important moments but remain open for further development in the sequel. If this is not a problem for you, I recommend reading it.