Friday, September 25, 2020

"The Ark," by Patrick S. Tomlinson--Fiction Review

Today we’re going to escape Earth for a new beginning in a new solar system—sounds pretty good given everything going on right now—in this science fiction/detective mystery “The Ark” by Patrick S. Tomlinson. Don’t worry—people are still shitty generations later and in space.

Patrick S. Tomlinson

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

It’s an interesting concept because the plot is essentially a murder mystery baked into a science fiction setting. You might think that blending the two genres might weaken both elements, but Tomlinson has the chops to do both justice.

I was pleasantly surprised that “The Ark” is pretty consistently hard science fiction despite having one of those high-concepts that could easily shift into soft science fiction. You’d think a murder mystery in space would be more focused on the more psychological elements, typical of crime fiction, and shared by soft science fiction. Tomlinson does address the psychological motives, so it isn’t unaddressed, but he also never takes his hand off the wheel when describing the science and engineering behind “The Ark.”

What I don’t love about this book:

Our main character, Benson, for the most part, is a likable gumshoe to be following around, but his follow-through feels inconsistent to me at times. So when they discover the body of a murdered crew member, floating out in space outside of the ship, he personally goes out in a maintenance pod to retrieve it. Then there is the bit where he alienates the owner of his favorite restaurant and another time where he storms onto the bridge to demand answers from the captain, to get the truth, damn it! So you’d think, this here is a guy that will do anything to get the job done right. Except he also sleeps with his girlfriend at a crime scene. Then there is the time he calls off a manhunt half-way through because, eh, he doesn’t feel like they’re going to find anything.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

So the story begins with Benson at a sports event. It’s a game called zero played at—you guessed it—zero gravity. Benson is a big fan because he used to be a captain of one of the teams when he was younger and before he was a cop. Now, he’s “chief,” such as it is of his own police department on his side of the Ark, the great generation starship humanity created to save a select few and find a new homeworld when Earth was destroyed.

Benson doesn’t get to enjoy his game, however, when the first officer calls him personally to inform him of a missing crewman.

He gets dragged away to investigate the missing crewman because it isn’t just any person who is missing, but one of the scientists deemed mission-critical to the whole settling humanity on a new homeworld project.

After meeting with the missing person’s coworkers, and checking out his, oddly lavish living quarters, bad news strikes. Sensor data picks up an object floating in the wake of the Ark that appears to be a body. Benson goes out to retrieve the body himself and confirms that it’s the scientist he’s been looking for all along. A micrometeorite strike nearly kills Benson in his pod, but he barely makes it back to the Ark with the body in tow.

As the story progresses, Benson becomes more-and-more convinced that someone high up in the crew had the scientist killed and is covering up the evidence. In fact, Benson suspects that the killer is the first officer himself, despite being the person who put him on to this case in the first place. This turns out to be false, and the first officer’s big secret was he was in a relationship with the scientist. The reason for the secrecy is the first officer is married with kids, so it was an illicit affair.

With the help of a one-time art thief, Benson eventually gets wind of other people, stowaways who had been living in the bowels of the ship for generations, outside of the Ark’s normal crew. Following a lead that one of these stowaways may have been acting as an assassin, being off the grid, for someone high up, Benson makes contact with a small community of them. There he learns there are two sets of people living in the shadows of the ships lower decks, one led by a former Ark official, Benson had thought dead, and the other a more violent splinter group further out on the fringes. Benson is told one of them must be the culprit.

This turns out to be a false trail, however, and after a disaster that kills half of the Ark’s inhabitants, which Benson gets blamed for, he learns that the long thought dead Ark official was actually one of the conspirators all along. Benson has to escape his own men who have arrested him, to clear his name and stop the mad man from killing the rest of the Ark. 

After the final confrontation, while Benson is in the hospital for his injuries from that conflict, he has one last interview with the dead scientist’s boss. There he confronts her—after she tries to poison him and fails, of course—with his knowledge that she was also one of the conspirators. She reveals why they did it was because the Ark’s sensors discovered that the new world they are flying to isn’t uninhabited. It’s been kept a secret from the general population. Some, like her, put forth a plan to sabotage the Ark. They feel that humanity was punished by God, who they attribute with having sent the black hole that destroyed Earth, and that humans mustn’t be allowed to kill another society.

The story ends with the captain speaking to Benson and how he will be needed when the Ark does finally arrive at their new home.   


Like most murder mysteries, “The Ark has a wide range of characters/suspects that Benson has to consider. Along the way, he chases more than one red herring and false trail, which is all pretty pro forma, but what makes this book special is the unique setting. The massive generation ship of “The Ark” is more like a flying city than a traditional starship, making it an exciting place.

On the science fiction end of things, Tomlinson aptly describes several speculative technologies. All of which has roots in things we currently have today. Even the unique method of propulsion used by the Ark, riding the shockwave of nuclear explosions, while sounding outlandish, is something I’ve heard scientists discuss as a possible method of acceleration for vessels ranging beyond our solar system.

True to another tradition of science fiction, Tomlinson also extrapolates how society would adapt and change generations into such a lengthy endeavor. All of his suppositions are couched in how the technology of the day influences culture and impacts human development. I found his descriptions of the primary preoccupations of the Ark’s passengers, which are focused on conservation to make a whole lot of sense given their circumstances.

Character work-wise, “The Ark” has some touching moments and conversations but primarily doesn’t rise above the level of pulpy detective noir. It isn’t bad by any means; it’s just not the shinest element of this story.

Parting thoughts:

One of the things I mentioned above that I liked about this book is its blend of sci-fi and detective genre stylings. Genre blending or cross-genre isn’t a new concept by any means, but it’s a neat element when done right, as I feel “The Ark” does. My favorite cross-genre is a mixture of horror and science fiction—I know a Lovecraft fanboy loves sci-fi/horror, go on, but I think the mix works incredibly well.

Other science fiction cross-genres that work well, in my opinion, is the ever-popular space western, which is typically done soft science fiction style—Star Wars and Firefly leap to mind. I feel, most cross-genres involving science fiction tend to be a shade of soft science fiction, which there is nothing wrong with that, but it does make a story such as this all the more unique since I can see the effort that Tomlinson made to keep this book closer to true hard science fiction. Even “Altered Carbon,” which predates this book by a decade and some change, also sci-fi/mystery, doesn’t try too hard to explain its science.

“The Ark” isn’t the first to pull off this trick of hard science fiction and mystery, while I’m sure I don’t know who might have been the first, I know Asimov wrote in that specific vein with “The Caves of Steel” back in the 1950s. Still, the point Asimov made back then, and the literary argument carried forward by Tomlinson today, that science fiction is robust enough to work with any other genre is still vital even now. 

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