Bryan Benson is one of the lucky few, one of the 50,000 or so humans left in the universe. A descendant of those who built and escaped on a generation ship fleeing a disaster for Earth undreamed up by even the imagination of Irwin Allen, Benson is an ex-sports hero, and now a detective. On the last bastion of humanity, slowly approaching their goal of Tau Ceti, there isn’t a lot of work for the detective beyond the usual sort of petty crimes one expects. The margin and tolerance for anything greater just isn’t there when all of the species is in one boat, literally. So, when Benson is handed a missing person case that may not be a missing person, or even an accidental death, but rather a murder, the ex-sports hero will have to become a different sort of hero.
The novel is laced with humor, no surprise given the author’s background as a comic. Benson has a snarky sense of humor, and many of the other characters have a broad range of comedy. It’s an effective leavening agent to the murder mystery, and the very idea and the premise of the novel. The last of humanity on an Ark is not a light subject, but the author manages to balance the existential horror and dread of this rather well.
The novel is relatively light on much of the science and the nuts and bolts of the Ark itself, as compared to some of the hard SF novels that have previously explored the concept. There is a fair amount of surveillance technology and the like, in keeping with the novel being a murder mystery, but other aspects of the nuts and bolts of the Ark are more handwaved. Given the reason for the exodus of the Earth, this is not entirely a surprise and is in keeping with the spirit the novel is trying to invoke. Readers of, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s AURORA are going to be disappointed that the generation ship novel constructed here has a very different focus and feel. With the author being a football fan himself and the character being an ex-sports hero, there is also a significant focus on the game of Zero. The author has put effort and thought into how a football like game might be played in microgravity, and if, say, Mode 7 Games wanted to make a computer game based on Zero, I’d play the heck out of it.
Tomlinson’s focus is more on the mystery and the characters, and the social situation of the Ark, than on how it actually functions. Benson is an excellent and engaging character, an appealing protagonist and an unlikely choice at that. It reminds me of the Miniseries ASCENSION, although with a higher technology base. The tight POV on Benson, though, keeps the story moving rather than getting caught in its own gears.
I’m not sure the novel entirely earns the latter portion of events, which to describe in detail would result in enormous spoilage. Put in an untenable position by events, I couldn’t quite buy some of the unspooling of the plot that allowed Benson the freedom of action that he has in the climax. His actions, I could buy, but I couldn’t quite accept him being there to execute them. With the rest of the murder mystery plot so solid, it is a shame that I couldn’t quite accept the latter portion. Its events that have to happen for the plot to work, rather than entirely coming out naturally. It may also be my unfamiliarity with some of the conventions of murder mysteries, a genre I am not widely read in. This, for me, somewhat weakened what was an otherwise extremely entertaining and interesting debut. The end of the novel, the imminent arrival on the planet, sets up obvious opportunity for follow-up, and I am curious enough to want to know more. The Ark is an extremely fast page turner, to both unspool the mystery, and immerse oneself in the main character and his plight.