On a starship, an art heist, a murder, a coverup

The Ark is a murder mystery set on a starship.

The premise is familiar. The remnants of the human race crowd aboard a spaceship en route for centuries to a new home amid the stars. Somehow, far behind them in space and time, the Earth’s billions have perished. Yet never before have I come across a rendering of this story that I can believe without undue strain. The starship’s design is logical, the method of its propulsion inventive but credible, and the structure of the society aboard makes sense. Patrick S. Tomlinson has written a credible tale of humanity bound for a second chance on a starship. It’s a detective story and a terrorist thriller wrapped up in hard science fiction.

Is a crewman’s murder linked to a notorious art heist?

Bryan Benson learns about it through his plant (neural implant). A crewman named Edmond Laraby, a biologist, is missing, but no body can be found. After pressing for a warrant, he discovers hanging on the wall of Laraby’s opulent apartment an original Monet, one of the priceless paintings stolen generations ago from the Ark‘s Museum but never recovered. Circumstances point to the First Officer as responsible for giving Laraby the painting—and probably for his murder. As Benson pushes ahead to identify the killer, he comes up against resistance from the captain herself. But there is much worse in store for Benson and for all the people of the Ark.


The Ark (Children of a Dead Earth #1) by Patrick S. Tomlinson (2015) 414 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)


This craft is nothing like the design that will be needed on a starship.
Spaceships like this familiar rendering of a contemporary vehicle are centuries removed from the design of the generational starship portrayed in The Ark. Image: space.com

A “beloved sport hero” well cast as a cop on a starship

Bryan Benson is chief constable of Avalon module, which houses 25,000 people—half of humanity’s survivors. To those around him, he is a beloved sport hero, having led the Mustangs to its last Zero championship. But he is no superhero, as his stumbles and miscalculations will amply show. And he descends from a genetic line that is widely despised even after eleven generations onboard. His ancestors had fraudulently gained admittance to the Ark, which was rigidly limited to Earth’s “smartest, strongest, healthiest.” Only Benson’s outstanding performance in Zero accounts for his having been promoted to lead Avalon’s small police force.

Zero is a game designed for weightlessness (near-zero gravity), but it gains its name from a new approach to scoring. Two teams face off in a game somewhat resembling American football, each with fifty points at the outset. The first to reach zero wins. And Tomlinson’s introduction of Zero is more than window-dressing. A game figures prominently in the story’s climax.

The Ark’s intriguing design

It’s sixteen kilometers long and consists of six modules. Two immense residential modules, Avalon and Shangri-La, house humanity’s 50,000 survivors. The 1,000-person crew—an elite, pampered lot—work in the Command module, the laboratories, and the storerooms. A sixth holds the 10,000 thermonuclear weapons that will be shot in sequence from the Ark‘s bow and detonated to slow it down on the approach to Tau Ceti G, twelve light-years distant from the sun. The nuclear bombs already deployed have accelerated the starship to five percent of lightspeed (33,000,000 miles an hour). Some “two hundred twenty-odd years” have elapsed since the Ark’s departure. But within weeks they will reach the point within Tau Ceti’s Oort Cloud and must begin slowing down to reach its seventh planet.

About the author

Patrick Tomlinson is the author of this murder mystery set on a starship.

Patrick S. Tomlinson writes science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries at his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife. He also performs standup comedy locally and in Chicago.

For further reading

I’ve also reviewed the second and third books in this trilogy, Trident’s Forge (A suspenseful mash-up of science fiction and mystery) and Children of the Divide (This sci-fi novel isn’t credible, but it’s a lot of fun).

See Good books about space travel, including both nonfiction and fiction and Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more).

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Andrew M Koenigsberg - a few months ago

Project Orion was a NASA study from the early 60’s that proposed this kind of propulsion, and ideas for this propulsion go back even further.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)#:~:text=Project%20Orion%20was%20a%20study,craft%20(nuclear%20pulse%20propulsion).&text=The%20Orion%20concept%20offered%20high,efficiency%2C%20at%20the%20same%20time.

It was used in the novel by Niven and Pournelle called Footfall back in 1985.

    Mal Warwick - a few months ago

    Thanks, Andy. Obviously I didn’t know that.

    Richard Pietrasz - a few months ago

    I remember Footfall. Niven and Pournelle have written much worse (Fallen Angels), but also much better.

    I find that propulsion concept crazy, especially due to the radiation shielding requirements. In Footfall, the mission was a suicide one, so that was much less an issue.

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