The Ark by Patrick S. Tomlinson

Unknown-1The Ark
Patrick S. Tomlinson
Angry Robot, 400 pages
Review by Steve Ironside

Once upon a time, ‘hard’ sci-fi meant hard to read. Sometimes it felt like you needed a science degree if you wanted to grapple with some of the concepts that an enthusiastic author was passionate about. I’ll admit; there are authors whose work I would avoid because I wanted a good romping action piece anchored in the science, rather than to be weighed down with the theory – heck, I have A Brief History of Time for that!

Enter Patrick S. Tomlinson with The Ark, his debut novel.

Humanity’s chosen few have left Earth to a somewhat grizzly fate at the hands of the Nibiru black hole aboard the titular Ark – a 16-kilometre-long generational starship en-route to Tau Ceti. Bryan Benson, the chief of police of the Avalon module, is called in to investigate what appears to be a missing person. Events quickly escalate into something which will threaten not only Benson’s career, but the future of mankind itself.

Tomlinson seems to have taken some cues from the urban fantasy genre in terms of style, which is not a bad thing. While not opting for the first-person perspective that you see in The Dresden Files (for example), Benson is as hard-nosed as any UF lead; this people’s hero has risen from poor circumstances though his skill at Zero, a sport based on American Football played in the microgravity near the spine of the Ark.

The Ark itself is an interesting place Because the journey takes many lifetimes, the current population is not the one that left Earth behind. No-one has ever been “outside”, with most never leaving the habitation module in which they were born. Since everything is geared towards survival, the administration –the crew who are actually running the ship – are staunchly authoritarian, with invasive rules that cause consternation amongst the general population, derisively known as “cattle”. With Benson caught in the middle of the two, occasionally breaking the rules himself, and secret groups and conspiracies appearing throughout the ship, there is a sense of menace in the background and dramatic social tensions which really help to bring the setting to life.

Tomlinson keeps the main narrative bubbling along nicely, deftly adding dead ends and plot twists, so things never get boring. There is also, of course, a supporting cast of colourful characters which allows Benson to indulge in the age-old detective’s tradition of banter. There are a couple of laugh-out-loud exchanges, particularly with Korolev, a young constable under his command, and with his ‘love interest with issues’

That’s not to say that the ‘science’ part of the science-fiction equation is left out; Tomlinson has thought not only about how an Ark would need to operate over the hundreds of years that the trip to Tau Ceti would take, but includes many of those elements directly into the narrative – a show-and-tell approach that means that the pace of the story doesn’t slow down in order to explain a nifty piece of science along the way, and ‘the Flip’ (where the crew will turn the ship through 180 degrees to start the deceleration phase of the journey) provides a background clock which adds to the urgency of Benson’s investigation.

If I could level one complaint at The Ark, it’s one that is common to a lot of urban fantasy – the ending rushes up pretty abruptly, with many of the clues dropping into place at the last minute. While it does allow for a fast paced action finale, I’d have enjoyed more of a slow reveal that played on the conspiratorial element.

Overall this is a good mystery well told. Subtitled as part of the Children of a Dead Earth series, there are moments that point to a larger story arc, with some interesting questions being asked and I would definitely look out for any other books in this series. As a debut, I think Mr Tomlinson has a lot to be happy about.

This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 3.