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287 pages, 2010

287 pages, 2010

When I picked it up, Containment seemed like an interesting choice. It picks an interesting location to set its story: a colony on Venus. It’s not exactly a setting that you see everyday, even in science fiction. The planet is just considered too unforgiving to set up shop. Naturally, I wanted to see how the topic was handled. Hard sci-fi, check. Interesting premise, check. Writer I’d never heard of before, check.

As it turns out, the reality falls a little short, and the result is a highly flawed book with occasional flashes of brilliance. Some parts are really good, while others just drag on and on. In the end, Containment had many of the makings of being a modern hard sf classic, but unfortunately was unable to put them together in a satisfying way. I’ll show you what I’m talking about after the jump.

Synopsis

The story follows Arik Ockley, one of the first humans born on Venus. His home, V1, is a self-contained dome on the Venusian surface similar to that of the Biosphere project. As his cohort comes of age they’re slowly integrated into the colony’s engineering and science operations. Arik is a brilliant computer scientist, one of the few people to ever master controlling a computer solely by brain activity. His skillset is used to work on one of the biggest problems facing V1 – the generation of oxygen.

As it turns out, the oxygen supply has been a major issue since the colony began. When planning for the first generation of humans born in V1, administration makes the inexplicable decision to allow as many people as possible to be born, safety margins be damned. Arik is assigned to help work on the project of artificial photosynthesis, which will take small amounts of the carbon dioxide from Venus’s atmosphere and convert it to oxygen to help increase the carrying capacity of the colony.

His efforts are hamstrung by a lack of support from the colony’s administration to ask for help from Earth. Earth has been on the verge of environmental crisis for several centuries, and while things are looking on the up and up, the administrators are still treating planning as if Earth could collapse at any moment.

Arik is unhappy with the idea of artificial photosynthesis, and begins illicitly exploring the possibility of terraforming Venus, which the administration feels is wasteful of the colony’s limited resources. His secret research takes him outside the sheltered dome of V1, where he is nearly killed in a serious accident. That accident has left him with little memory relating to his prior research. However, the behavior of some of his associates post-accident makes him suspicious of what is really going on.

To make things a little more rough on Arik, his wife Cadie is now three months pregnant. The clock begins ticking on whether he can piece together the circumstances surrounding his accident, or solve the seemingly insurmountable problem of artificial photosynthesis.

The biggest structural problem with the story lies in its lack of focus. The book begins with a nifty moral quandary, ala The Cold Equations. That story poses an interesting problem – a stowaway on an express freight spaceship puts it over its weight limit. Because it is over the weight limit, the freighter does not have enough fuel to slow it down before it lands. The freighter is carrying vaccines to a colony facing an epidemic. The question posed: who gets sacrificed? The stowaway, or a few vials of vaccine that may prove critical to the survival of the colony? It’s a terrible engineering situation – safety margins would ensure that the situation never arose, but it does raise an interesting moral dilemma.

Containment poses a similar problem. The circumstances surrounding Arik’s accident make him feel expendable. The clues that he left for himself prior to his accident lead him to believe that his work would give the colony astounding long-term success. However, the survival of his own daughter depends on him finishing his research on artificial photosynthesis. Should he successfully solve the problem, he might be erased from the colony. Should Arik opt for the long-term success of the colony, or act for the short-term success of his offspring?

Discussion (Spoiler Warning)

The question that the situation raises is interesting, but frustratingly, is one that Containment goes out of its way to avoid answering. Instead, about 2/3 of the way through the author tosses in a major plot twist that unravels the entire story up to that point. Worse, this happens about 2/3 of the way in, leaving the rest of the story scrambling to pick up the pieces.

The twist is that V1 isn’t actually on Venus at all. While doing an EVA outside of V1 surface, Arik discovers a concrete wall and a metal door. He ventures out, and learns that V1 is actually located in Antarctica. The Earth is in worse shape than the administrators have lead him to believe. A nuclear war has apparently taken place, and the Earth’s oceans are contaminated with a mix of oil spills and radioactive fallout. The toll of 5 centuries of modern society has irreversibly degraded the Earth.

Arik’s “accident” is just an attempt to cover-up what he stumbled onto. V1 isn’t an attempt to colonize another planet – it’s a final bastion of civilization on the brink of collapse. Within its walls are the only clean air and water for hundreds of miles. The children “born” at V1 weren’t born there, but brought in from similar pods from across the world.  The administrators aren’t there to ensure the growth and success of the colony – they’re creating an unwitting research group to create cheap oxygen and water that can be sold to the rest of the world.

It’s an interesting, if cliche, plot twist. I felt that the author actually handled the plot twist itself quite well. The story builds up to the reveal kind of slowly, and leaves some little hints of what the twist actually is. Once it happens, a lot of the little quirks that were present in the early stages of the story fall into place. It’s a huge ‘aha!’ moment.

However, the twist was very dangerously close to being pulled too late. The story doesn’t exactly rush to a conclusion once Arik figures out what happened to him in the accident, but it did seem like the bulk of the story was behind me by that point. Arik had reached his peak character development, and most of the new things that we learn about V1 are kind of irrelevant.

I think the worst thing about the plot twist is that way too much time was spent infodumping the false history of V1. A full 26 pages of this 290 page book fall under the chapters “The History of V1”, which mostly covers the conditions Earthside and what led humanity to begin colonizing the Solar System. The rest of the first half is also heavily infused with V1’s false history.

Sitting down and looking at it, the proposition keeps getting more and more absurd. You’ve spent nearly a tenth of the book learning a history that never even happened and has little relevance to the story! Another problem with this history is that even the author recognized it was too much – it was split into three chapters to serve as a break. When you get to that point that even you recognize that something is too much, you really need to break out the editorial scissors.

Some of the material in that history is kind of silly, too. For example, it spends a paragraph describing how the problem of consumer waste was solved: making offenders wear silly clothes and use the media culture to shame them until they reform their ways. It’s really small details like that that are thrown in and serve to add nothing to the overall story. Not all thoughts about how problems of the future are solved are equal, especially if they’re irrelevant to the plot.

Another big issue with the book is its really poor characterization. Arik is extremely well-developed as a character. I could sympathize with his struggles to get control of the situation he’s thrust into. But he’s really the only character that gets developed, the only one whose motivations that we can understand and empathize with. Everyone else in the story felt like a plot device.

Even Arik’s wife, who the narrative says he loves very much, is barely present in the story. She’s carrying his baby, and in one scene she describes how she got pregnant while Arik was in a coma and why she made that choice, but that’s it. That’s the extent of her development. It felt like a shoddy attempt to add complexity to her character, but it’s just sort of window dressing or something.

Other characters are even worse – we get names, indications of an underlying motivation, but they end up being so one dimensional that I realized that this was one of the biggest missed opportunities of the book. Had some of the main players been developed to the extent of Arik, the story would have been much, much better, even with all of the flaws that I pointed out.

The lack of characterization really comes back to bite the story in the ass at the end. Arik dies in the end after the story telegraphs this nearly a chapter in advance – so we’re prepared for his death. It’s not a sudden thing at all, and so the burden of heartstring-tugging falls to how it impacts those around him. But even here the story fails to follow through. We don’t see how the impact affects his wife or friends, but even if we did, their characters have been so utilitarian to the plot that it wouldn’t matter anyway.

All of these flaws make the story a mess. That’s a shame, because to be honest, I think there’s a good story buried in here. With some better editorial direction it could have been one of the top sf novels of 2010. When the plot stayed focused on its narrative instead of derailing into little asides, the author’s writing was very good. I think the story after the major plot reveal is an example of this – once the punches were pulled the author’s writing was very tight, right down to the end.

One thing that Mr. Cantrell does well is describing systems engineering. The setup of the whole colony was described really well, to the point where you understand *why* the engineers made the decisions they did while building it. There is also some philosophy of technology tucked into the story in a very non-infodumpy way. He shows the signs of being capable of very good writing, given the focus. I think if the focus had been shifted away from writing a pseudo-history of V1 and onto developing the characters a little more, Containment might have been considered a modern hard sf classic. Instead, its flaws weigh it down to little more than mediocre.

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