It’s been a good year for novels set on generation ships, and Patrick S. Tomlinson’s ‘The Ark’ continues that trend. It’s a fast-paced sci-fi thriller, with a central mystery at the core, with some decent characters and well executed prose.
One of the central pivots of this book is the world it’s created. A generation ship, carrying the third generation descendants of mankind’s best and brightest. A ship separated with a gulf between crew and passenger. A ship with two spinning modules filled with the last of the human race, with all the petty rivalries that implies. A ship where every birth is tracked, where every citizen carries an implant which allows their every move to be monitored, where there are few weapons, and fewer crimes.
Tomlinson’s ship is a logical extension of our current situation, both technologically and socially.
The technical aspects of the ship are examined in satisfying, if not exhaustive, detail. It certainly feels like the author has done their research. I was delighted on discovering that the ship was brought up to thrust by nuclear blasts, and even more delighted to have a character reference the Orion project, a real-life NASA idea for doing exactly this (eventually canned because letting off nuclear bombs inside an atmosphere is a bad idea). It was suggestive of a writer who was making an effort to be persuasively accurate with their technology. There’s similar watermarks of solid research throughout – the spinning of the habitats, for example – and whilst there’s a few instances of future-tech, these aren’t overburdened with technical jargon of their own. The technology here is used as environmental texture, to build out a more convincing world, without overwhelming the reader in minutiae.
The sociology at play in the narrative is equally interesting. The protagonist, as head of the police force for one of the modules, ruminates on the social conditioning which has led to an almost crime-free shipboard life. Throughout the text, characters reference their ‘plant’, which appears to function as a combined personal AI and (more chillingly) recording device. I would have enjoyed seeing more of the implications that span out of this technology explored – they’re touched on, alongside those of some other truly terrifying technologies, but the idea of a civilisation under constant, mandatory, but effectively community driven surveillance is an intriguing one, and felt like it deserved more room to grow. Still, Tomlinson approaches the issues in this area with a degree of nuance, and integrates them nicely into the plot.
The central point for the characters is Bryan Benson. He serves as the protagonist, the viewpoint character for the reader. From the perspective of the moment, he’s presented very well. Tomlinson gives us a great view on a character who begins as blithe and assured, and who runs aground on the rocks of doubt. Benson’s gradual shift in emotional state is wonderfully portrayed, his increasing level of weariness and cynicism pitched perfectly. We also get to hear a little of his back story – his role in a winning sports team is mentioned every so often, as part of his popular appeal and the reason behind his skills and physical condition. But there’s a lot more – the role of his family in shipboard life, for example, is mentioned briefly, but not, perhaps, closely enough. Through Benson’s eyes, we also get a view on the various social tiers of the ship, through his supporting cast. Here, Tomlinson is on fairly frim ground; the secondary characters fit their roles well, and convey most of their character through dialogue, and asides in Benson’s own thoughts.
Whilst the way the characters act is consistent, enjoyable, and entirely believable, it would have been nice if they’d had more room to grow, as the protagonist does. Benson’s relationship, for example, was always interesting, usually amusing, and occasionally sympathy inducing – but getting past the traits of his lover, and into their character, was a little trickier. That said, each character worked as an individual, and within the confines of the plot – I would simply have enjoyed a little more time with each of them.
Having said that, the lack of time with the ancillary characters may be related to the time taken up by the plot. It starts with a murder, and never really lets up thereafter. There’s a period at the start with a relatively slow burn, as Benson assembles suspects, speculated on motive, and tries to locate a mysterious killer. As is traditional, he’s not assisted by obstructive witnesses, red herrings, and the occasional personal dilemma. The action ramps up as the book proceeds, moving from the tension of a covert investigation into some sterling action sequences, and an impressively shocking denouement. It’s a fast-paced action-adventure of a novel, especially as the stakes rise and the pace ratchets up – but the mystery at the core is both intricate and intriguing – and kept me guessing for quite a while.
Is it worth the read? If you’re looking for a fusion of excellent hard sci-fi and action thriller, with a soupcon of mystery, then yes, absolutely. I’m already looking forward to seeing what the next book in the series has in store.