The Ark, by Patrick Tomlinson
Posted November 17, 2015on:
The Ark, by Patrick Tomlinson
published November 2015
where I got it: Netgalley
The original fifty thousand residents of the generation ship, known as the Ark, were chosen for their intelligence and skills. These were the families we wanted to restart humanity with after we learned a black hole was headed straight for Earth. Eleven generations later, the total number of humans is still around fifty thousand, thanks to strict population controls. It’s a pretty boring journey for the most part, so everyone finds entertainment where they can. Watching Zero, a ballgame played in the low G of the center of the ship, is hugely popular. One of the game’s most famous players, Bryan Benson, grew up to become a detective. Fame has it’s bonuses – everyone is usually very happy to see Benson on their end of the ship, and he usually gets free drinks at the bar because his autographed photo is up on the wall.
Generally speaking, life on the Ark is pretty easy. Sure, there’s politics and gossip and sports and such, but in general very little changes. How much can life change, when you live in a tin can and families and child rearing are done only by approval? If you’ve seen the TV miniseries Ascension, the environs of The Ark feel similar.
Before I get into the plot of the novel, I want to tell you about the Ark ship, because it’s awesome. The propulsion system is basically Project Orion on crack. Nuclear bombs are detonated out the back end of the ship, and the force of the explosion pushes the ship forward. It sounds crazy, but it works. Tomlinson really did his research when it comes to both the design of the ship, astrophysics and how gravity changes in different areas of a rotating habitat. One of the opening scenes involves an EVA outside of the ship that could have easily been botched. But thanks to the author’s understanding of physics, the EVA scene firmly solidifies the legitimacy of the worldbuilding. I really loved the ship, how it works, and the other tech that the author dovetailed into our future society.
Tomlinson gets the plot off to a quick start, with a missing crewman, who turns into a dead body, which turns into a murder investigation headed up by Constable Benson. The Ark may house fifty thousand people, but it’s not so large that someone could have been pushed out an airlock and not have anyone witness it. And who would want to kill a lowly researcher? And why?
In many ways, Tomlinson’s The Ark has all the trappings of a standard mystery novel. A body is found, an investigator investigates, is told by authorities to stop investigating, and a larger conspiracy is uncovered including affairs, black markets, and more. The story is very well paced, with many chapters ending on interesting cliff hangers. What clues are the right ones? Which clues are red herrings? When will the authorities get fed up with their secrets being exposed, and just shut the whole thing down? In many ways, it felt like an old timey murder mystery movie filmed in black and white. In fact, a lot of about this science fiction novel felt strangely old fashioned.
This is a tough review for me to write, because I really wanted to like this book. Tomlinson gets huge points for getting all the science right and for avoiding infodumping pitfalls. It’s really too bad there were a few scenes that soured me on the whole thing. Which leads to a bigger question – should a few scenes sour a reader on an entire book? I guess it depends on the reader, and on the book. Some of the things that bothered me may not bother other people. I’ve certainly blown off things in other books that pissed off other readers. So, there’s that.
Twice, when Benson is chatting with people about his investigation, their response is a version of “I am this way because I am of such-and-such culture”. I have purposely left out the adjectives and their respective cultures/religions. Characters could have just said “I’m adjective because that’s the way I am”, but no, they had to connect their personality trait with a culture, stereotyping that entire culture to be that adjective. It really rubbed me the wrong way.
This next one requires me to spoil a little of the backstory, so I’ll try to be as vague as possible. One of the characters Benson has chatted with is an art thief, and he’s got some knowledge of a group of sex workers who trade sex for food, clothes, and other goods. The art thief says the muckers call these women “Geisha”. This tiny sentence pissed me off so much I can’t even. Was there no other word these women could be called? Really? The author had to use a word that belittles anything and everything else Geisha did? The entire scene came off as western ignorance. Imagine if the group of sex workers had been called actresses. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? Using the term “actress” when you really mean “prostitute”. I imagine it’s happened, possibly even more than once in the history of Hollywood that an actress traded sex favors for something she wanted. The actress might have plenty of other talents, but who knows, because all we see her as now is a hooker. If people started referring to all sex workers as actresses, I imagine lots of actresses would be offended. That’s about how I felt when I saw the word Geisha used to describe hookers. I could go on and on about this, but hopefully you’ve realized how fucking pissed off I was.
The art thief, Sal, knows his art history like nobody’s business. Of all people, I’d expect him to know that Geisha were musicians, dancers, and entertainers. We Benson eventually meets someone attached to this group of women, she offers herself to Benson, and she’s a preteen. It was a completely skeevy scene that didn’t fit the feel of the story at all. That scene led to another scene, which was also filled with cultural stereotypes. I felt like I was watching a movie from the 60s, when stereotyping minorities was basically a thing.
From this point on, I had such a bad taste in my mouth that everything that happened after that scene went down hill for me. The big reveal felt rushed and disconnected, and unfortunately didn’t impress. The Ark had such a great start, but it ultimately didn’t work for me.