by Jake Taber
The Ark by British author Ben Jeapes is a space narrative that many might initially assume to be remarkably generic. It’s a classic first contact story in which a future human race meets aliens of a somewhat equal level of technological advancement, after which conflict and rising tension are cued posthaste. I picked it from a secluded storage box for a quick summer read, but what I found was a depth and attention to detail that ended up surprising me.
Without giving too much away, the human race has been “chosen” by an advanced race called the First Breed to co-inhabit their distant, Earth-like planet. It’s an offer that comes at a good time: our own homeworld has been ravaged by pollution and climate change, and a good portion us now live on Mars or in spacefaring colonies elsewhere in the solar system. (Britain, for it’s part, now exists in exile as a massive ship named UK-1.) The First Breed has no single nation but, realizing that humankind is divided as such, decide to hold a conference in their corner of the galaxy to determine the nation that will represent humanity in all matters. Captain Gilmore – our relatable and self-critical protagonist – is given the task of ferrying the British delegation, which includes a loyal crew and a haughty, unlikable crown prince, along with a First Breed representative named Arm Wild.
From here, the story becomes one of thrilling political intrigue, and humanity’s amusing introduction to the art of interspecies relations. Stick with the book past the first couple chapters and the author’s heed to realism in this area becomes quite apparent. The First Breed, nicknamed “rusties” by humans, are different in nearly every way imaginable, as true aliens should be. They’re short, red, asexual quadrupeds who communicate using pheromones and have to wear translator units to converse with us. Culturally they are likewise quite incomparable, and great care must be taken by both sides to avoid offense or misinterpretation. Also touched on are the ways in which the races can connect to, and relate with, each other: though they have no knowledge of music or visual art, the rusties value performance and dramatic storytelling, and though they occasionally seem robotic, they feel pride and anger, happiness and sorrow.
What comes through quite clear, especially near the book’s end, are Jeapes’ little criticisms of human nature. The book’s most troubling issues come not through misunderstandings between the two species, but through conflicting interests between bickering nations intent on coming out on top, or through instances of human greed and vanity. The instances of satire are not spiteful jabs, and both virtuous and Machiavellian camps are represented, but they do serve to set The Ark apart from a Star Wars/Star Trek type scenario. We are not the most ethical race, or the strongest morally, and we are destined to make frequent mistakes. Such an idea, though not pushed all that hard, kept the story fresh the entire way through.
In short, this book is much of what it appears to be: a moderately difficult and engaging read that won’t make you use your brain all that much, but one that delivers a solid sci-fi experience. Fans of Ender’s Game and Dune (a book I have yet to read; look for a review in the near future) will likely enjoy this most, but I’d recommend it for anyone looking to get into the genre.
Recommended Reading is TBAW’s new column on literature. The goal is to introduce people – myself included – to new spheres of writing beyond their comfort zone, as well as to suggest starting points for those who don’t read as often outside of the classroom. The books featured could be new or old, of any genre, length, or style, fiction or nonfiction, a novel or a collection of short stories. If you want to suggest a book, email your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll do my best to get my hands on a copy.