I’d generally recommend not bothering with the book, as its immensely anticlimactic and terrible but…
Yeah, he takes a complex view of biology my making up biological problems (with no basis in science) at which characters who seem very smart and capable throw their hands up and give up on.
I’m a biologist, and I’m always disappointed at how its portrayed in sci-fi. The authors know lots about physics, but nearly nothing about biology. (Cory himself has some disappointing interpretations of how biology works in Makers.
The book presents a view that biology/ecology are impossibly complex systems which we can never understand. Trying to create human habitats is presented as impossible. Biology/ecology is presented as a largely magical field, which is not tractable.
Here’s my synopsis:
In the future colonists take a generation ship to a new solar system for the same reasons they always do. IN the way they learn that their ecosphere requires a lot of management and maintenence. For some reason, they rely entirely on agriculture for their food, even though they have self-replicating “printers” which are stated to be capable of printing DNA and bacteria. Also they have several biomes, some which are just frozen wastelands because “biodiversity” even though frozen wastelands have very low biodiversity. They learn that there is “zoo deevolution” going on, which means all the plants and animals start to get sickish and low-performing, because bacteria evolve faster than animals or something, which I guess never happens on earth. More or less, earth is viewed as “magical” somehow and this shit isn’t gonna hack it.
Anywho they get where they are going, low on supplies, and find out that the moon they chose to land on has some mysterious prion/virus thing which kills them, but some people don’t die. They spend little time investigating this and instead decide that its all hopeless. Half of them decide they just wanna give up and go back to earth and the other half decide to stay. Given that throughout the book their main problems are lack of material resources through which to “print” the things they need, heading off into the desolate wastes of interstellar space seems like a bad idea. So some stay and you never hear about them again, and the ones who head back are ok at first but then the whole thing is falling apart and they are starving. Even though they have self-replicating printers which can print organic matter, I guess they can’t print food. No idea why. Also, even though we are currently a hair’s breath from bioreactors which can make soylent form sunlight, they don’t have this. Also apparently none of them knows anything about genetics, because they are unable to cope with various genetic problems.
Anyways on the way back the ship has to undergo a complex breaking maneuver to slow down so they can drop the passengers (many whom have died) into earth’s atmosphere. Though they are in contact with and cooperating with people in the solar system who help them slow down with a big laser. Apparently though no one there can like, help them by sending some more fuel or just pick them up. Seriously, a lot of them die because no one can apparently send a shuttle to get them off the ship. Then the ship crashes into the sun and the protagonist goes surfing.
There’s a little of dramatic political intrigue and some precious musings on human and machine psychology (AI was never invented before the book, but in the book an engineer accidentally invents it by telling the computer to like, think about stuff. This makes it sentient. The computer still never uses their self-replicating printers, which can print bacteria, to print food.
The thesis is that space exploration is dumb because earth is magical and biology is mysterious.
TL;DR: Humans try to colonize space, but end up not knowing anything about biology. When it gets hard they give up immediately. It’s made hard by ad hoc problems the author invents and most of them starve to death because even though their printers can print bacteria from base matter, they can’t print food for some reason.