Wednesday, 5 November 2003

Brian Stableford: Dark Ararat (2002)

Edition: Tor, 2003
Review number: 1194

Like its predecessor, The Cassandra Complex, Dark Ararat fills in something of a gap in Stableford's future history, lying between Inherit the Earth and Architects of Emortality. Each of the novels in the series (except the last, which I have yet to read) is a self-contained look at some aspects of the quest to bring immortality to the human race. Despite being part of this series, Dark Ararat is more tangential to this quest, and actually marks a return to one of the staple plots of (post-Campbell) science fiction - the adventures of the early pioneers to descent to the surface of an alien world, one which is considered a possibility for human colonisation. It is about genetics, and mortality, but is more concerned with setting up a plausible scenario in which the DNA molecule isn't the replicator at the centre of living organisms.

A book I have recently read is the cleverly argued Evolving the Alien by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. It deals with what we might be able to expect to find in terms of life on other planets; speculation about what properties would be universals (true of life anywhere) and what would be parochials (true only of life on Earth). It is a book which makes it hard to read any science fiction dealing with aliens subsequently without starting to judge the biology according to its arguments.

Many older science fiction depictions of alien environments fail the tests by making their backgrounds too earthlike - grass like plants might be a universal, or at least commonplace, but the word "like" in that statement is very important. The plant may fill a similar ecological niche to grass on Earth, but only those aspects of its appearance and life history implied by that niche will be identical to those of real grass. Because writers are interested in other things (communication with intelligent aliens, or the technicalities of space flight and planetary colonisation, for example), they often haven't spent so much time thinking about just how different things might be.

It seems to me, on reading Dark Ararat, that I am not alone in having been impressed by Evolving the Alien. The alien planet, whose name has not been finalised but could be Ararat or Tyre, seems to have been constructed with Cohen and Stewart's ideas firmly in mind. The whole series of novels has already demonstrated Stableford's interest in the biological sciences, and here he has thought through an entire planet of ecologies based on a system of replicator molecules which are different from earthly DNA - replication via an encoded genome taken to be a universal, DNA a parochial.

The problem which many meticulously worked out science fiction stories have, and it is one which makes many people dislike the genre as a whole, is that the background takes over the story, pushing character and plot into minor roles. Stableford avoids this pitfall by making his plot melodramatic and organising it so that exposition of the background becomes a natural consequence of its outworking. This plot is partly a murder mystery, and partly a tale of political manoeuvring.

Not all the colonists have been thawed from the cryogenic suspension in which they travelled from Earth over seven hundred years, and the story starts when two men are woken, one to replace a murder victim, an ecologist, and the other a policeman to investigate the killing. Conflicts have arisen between the colonists and the ship's crew (who are descendants of the original crew and want to drop the colonists off and move on elsewhere) about the suitability of Ararat for colonisation, and these tensions are heightened by the possibility that there is intelligent life on the planet - stone tools have been found, and the victim was killed with a replica of one of them.

Dark Ararat is just the kind of clever, thoughtful and well written science fiction that readers have come to expect from Stableford; it keeps up the standard of one of the genre's best series in recent years.

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