Imagine my surprise when the last book I read in 2015, hard science fiction about interplanetary colonisation by British author Stephen Baxter, inadvertently slotted itself into the Indigenous Reading Challenge I set myself earlier in the year.
The book – Proxima – is not a perfect fit with the challenge because it is not by an Indigenous author, but one of the main characters is Aboriginal Australian.
– SPOILERS –
Mardina Jones, ‘full blood’ Aboriginal woman, astronaut and space cop, is stranded on a planet in the Proxima Centauri system when her boss decides she’ll enrich the gene pool of the tiny colony.
The UN has decided to stake a claim on a small planet in a red dwarf solar system four light years from earth, by depositing 200 people in a number of small, genetically diverse groups.
It’s not just a land claim; it’s a social engineering experiment. Will the isolated colonists be able to survive, reproduce and establish new civilisations on the planet that Mardina names Per Ardua? Or will their tiny, pressurised communities implode?
Apart from Mardina and a handful of other astronauts who are left behind to supplement the gene pool, the colonists are from the margins of society: petty and hardened criminals, sex workers, drifters who’ve been forcibly recruited through a ‘sweep’. New world as convict colony, much as Australia was in the 18th century, but with no need for guards, and even less possibility of return.
Cut off from the other colonising groups and also from the UN who left them there, and earth itself, each group is provided with supplies and an intelligent robot: a super-library on wheels that can turn the alien dirt into soil that can grow earth plants, synthesise meat from the local vegetation, transport goods, deliver babies, educate the colonists’ children, and eventually, communicate with the Indigenous life-forms.
It seems like a mad, Lord of the Flies inspired scheme, and the initial results are bleak. Within a few months Mardina’s group of 10 is reduced to just two: her and Yuri Eden, a young man from the 21st century who was frozen for eighty years in the hope he would have a better life in the future.
Much of the book is told from Yuri’s perspective. His is one of three main story lines which intertwine. The other stories are those of Stef Kalinski, a physicist investigating the unusual energy source in the mines of Mercury that has enabled light-speed travel (which is how the colonists got to the Proxima system); and Angelia, an artificial intelligence (AI) on a one-way mission to Per Ardua.
Together, their stories explore the kinds of ethical, social and cultural dilemmas that may lie ahead for us earthlings as we pursue the goals of colonising space and developing increasingly smart AI.
Proxima is set in a future where humans believe they have learned from the hubris and technological arrogance of their 21st century forebears, but it’s clear they are deluding themselves. The same old xenophobia and hunger for power that have seem to have always plagued our species are as virulent as ever. Miscommunication and territorialism inevitably lead to self-destruction, and on a cosmic scale.
These are grand themes, and Mardina the Aboriginal astronaut is but a small player, albeit a significant one. In spite of her resentment about being dumped on Per Ardua, she adjusts quickly to the new environment. Mardina is a voice of sanity in the chaos of settling the new world, and the mother of one of the first Per Arduan-born humans. Years later, when she and Yuri and their daughter meet the remnants of other colonising groups, Mardina becomes the unspoken leader. She sets the tone for the more civilised community that arises after the violence of the early years.
In making Mardina Aboriginal, Stephen Baxter underlines the shaky ethical foundations of colonialism, whether in the 18th or the 22nd centuries. I welcomed this, but felt he didn’t go far enough.
Mardina’s commanding officer rationalises leaving her behind on Per Ardua as increasing the number of women in the group and diversifying the genetics, but Mardina knows it’s also because as a Black woman she’s expendable.
On the other hand, there’s the irony that Mardina is part of the force bringing the colonisers to the planet, an employee of a government that has decided that Per Ardua is Terra Nullius (uninhabited). Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time Indigenous people have been enlisted as agents of the oppressors. You do what you have to, to survive.
What I found more disturbing, was that Mardina never seems to question the ethics of how they should interact with the intelligent life forms that already inhabit Per Ardua – photosynthesising creatures that she and Yuri call ‘Builders’ because they construct shelters, nests for their young, and dams to control water flow.
As the book progresses it becomes more and more evident that the Builders are highly intelligent, social beings, but the only character that seems to fully recognise them as being worthy of respect is ColU, the AI robot that helps Mardina and Yuri survive.
More than twenty years after colonising, the Builders help the humans find a means of instantaneous travel across the light years that divide Proxima Centauri from our own solar system.
This remarkable discovery results in an influx of new colonisers from earth, but having done their bit to facilitate wormhole travel, the Builders suddenly vanish from the narrative. Thousands of earthlings pour through the border, rip up and replace the native vegetation, take over the Builders’ lands and river systems … and there is no further comment on what happens to the Builders themselves.
I found this astonishing. What happened to them? Are there conflicts between Builder and human, or do they comfortably coexist? How many Builder lives are lost due to loss of habitat? Does anyone advocate for their rights? Do they retreat to strongholds and amass strength to take back their land?
Of course, these are all other stories that are peripheral to the central narrative and themes, but I would have found Proxima a more satisfying read if there had been some hints, some further examination, however small, of the fallout of colonialism.
Perhaps this doesn’t happen because Stephen Baxter is a white male author who, having raised the theme of the oppressive aspects to colonisation, just wasn’t that interested in continuing with it – or was more interested in the experiences of the colonisers, than those of the colonised. I feel that interpretation is possibly a bit unfair to him, because the cast of Proxima is relatively diverse, and the book ends with the suggestion that Mardina and Yuri’s mixed race daughter, Beth, will be a key player in Ultima, the sequel to Proxima. Maybe the builders will reappear in Ultima (I’ll find out soon).
Perhaps Baxter felt silence was more eloquent than words – for there has often been silence about the forcible displacement of Indigenous peoples. Their lives become invisible when history is written by the victors.
Or perhaps the silence is because there was no one left who cared to note the effects of the invasion. Mardina uses the wormhole to leave Per Ardua and return to her old job, although not to her own world, let alone her own country. But would she have noticed the effects, given her apparent lack of concern about being a coloniser?
I’m surprised that having made the character Aboriginal, and referencing both her culture and her experience of racism, Baxter didn’t give Mardina a role as witness and opponent to the subjugation of the Indigenous inhabitants of Per Ardua. I guess it’s not obligatory to do so, but this does seem a missed opportunity.
Or am I the one who’s thinking in terms of stereotypes: Mardina’s Aboriginal therefore she must be an Indigenous rights activist? None of the Aboriginal people I know are shy about calling out injustice when they see it, but to be the only ones doing so, and always being put in the position of having to do so, can be a burden. It is also up to non-Indigenous people, to name and critique oppression.
In Proxima, Mardina seems not to notice the Builders’ problems. They are aliens, not humans, and humans are her focus. Yuri is the first in their group to notice the Builders’ intelligence and until the human Per Arduans start growing up alongside the Builders, he is the only person to appear to have much sympathy for them. But he’s far from being their advocate, so even though he returns to Per Ardua, the Builders remain without human supporters.
While I think Baxter’s treatment of the Builders’ fate is inadequate, it is part of the larger picture that he paints of our difficulties in behaving with humanity and integrity and, well, even common sense. By the close of Proxima, Earth itself is destroyed because the competing spacefaring super-powers were unable to cooperate. I’m left with the impression that if we can’t care about other humans beyond our immediate circle, how could we possibly care about dispossessed aliens?
Baxter writes fiction, but with the rapid acceleration of technology and expansion of scientific frontiers, a future inhabited by smart AI and space colonisation doesn’t seem that improbable any more.
We live on the cusp of incredible times. Just before I picked up Proxima, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully launched a rocket, dispatched a series of satellites from it and landed it back on earth – an historic achievement that could ultimately make the exploration of space more feasible and affordable. (Just for the moment, let’s leave aside the question of whether or not it’s desirable).
Proxima, like any other fictional genre, is really about people and how we deal with each other: our strengths and our weaknesses. What I like about the book, and about science fiction in general, is how the focus on future technologies and possibilities stimulates reflection on where humans are heading in the long term – not just technologically, but socially and culturally as well. Proxima’s conclusion is that we still have a long way to go, but just possibly, we will survive our own stupidity.
In these comments I’ve focussed on Mardina and the colonisation theme, but as I said, that’s just a small part of the story. In spite of my frustration about how this was handled, Proxima is definitely worth a read.