“Every world needed an artist.”
Proxima is a relatively recent entry in prolific SF author Stephen Baxter’s bibliography: according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge it was published in 2013, a year after the publication of The Long Earth, co-authored by Terry Pratchett and my only other encounter with Baxter’s writing.
Proxima is set in the 27th century. Humanity has spread to the rocky planets of the solar system – Mars, Mercury, the Moon, Ceres – living in habitat domes. The Earth is, of course, horribly polluted. Tensions between the Chinese and the West are high. Energy is notionally scarce, but this doesn’t seem to stop people spaceshipping around at the drop of a hat. It’s against this tense sociopolitical climate that the three main strands of the novel take place: an apparently impossible source of nearly infinite energy is found in Mercury’s crust; a scientist sends an AI out into the vast reaches of space; and the Western authorities send a spaceship full of petty criminals and other undesirables on a four-year trip to Per Ardua, an Earthlike planet that’s recently been discovered orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun.
So Proxima reads very like a less well-realised version of The Long Earth (a pioneer story twinned with scientists investigating vaguely cool stuff and some Weird Shit, possibly to do with quantum, thrown into the mix), and seen in that light it really points up the core issue with both books and with quite a lot of hard SF of this type: namely, how univocal it all is. The universe of Proxima (and to a lesser extent that of The Long Earth) is heavily anthropocentric: the text seems to have no issue with the human colonisation of Per Ardua, an entirely new world with an entirely new ecology that no-one bothers to study before humanity floods across it like a terraforming tide, and the aforementioned Weird Shit is weird precisely because of how convenient it is: just as humans need to start spreading to the stars, here comes this super-powerful form of energy! The universe arranges itself specifically around humanity, despite the fact that we know there are other forms of life on Per Ardua, and presumably elsewhere. (I just want to take a moment to compare this with another SF text I’ve read recently, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, which recognises not only humanity as an important presence in the universe, but also another alien species, and bats, and swordfish, and road monsters, and African gods, all without even leaving Earth.)
This narrowness of focus on the macro level unfortunately translates itself, on the micro level, into a narrowness of gaze, a narrowness of assumed audience. Proxima is very evidently a male book. It uses sexual violence against women to signal that Shit is Getting Very Bad Indeed. It posits that the very first thing the male colonists of Per Ardua do after being dumped on an alien planet with no hope of survival but to work together is fight over the women. (This isn’t just utterly ridiculous – please, get some priorities, guys – it also perpetuates the harmful myth that men are all lustful and base creatures who can’t control their primal instincts.) The message, intended or otherwise, that female readers can’t help but take away from this is that male control is literally the most important thing there is.
Baxter clearly intends to explore some far-out ideas about consciousness and time and quantum and the universe, and I suspect that the second half of the duology, Ultima, will make some fundamental and radical revelation about the nature of the books’ universe. (I’m not intending to read Ultima.) It’s ironic, then, that the book is so myopic when it comes to basic cultural assumptions: when your imagination is big enough to contain the whole universe, you should at least be able to consider someone else’s point of view.