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Stephen Baxter


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).

This is one of those large ambitious science fiction novels whose scope includes life, the universe, and everything. The story is told in a series of short sections, each of which looks at what is happening from the standpoint of a particular character. There are quite a few of these, but the main participants are the curiously named entrepreneur Reid Malenfant (Bad Child?) and his ex-wife and personal assistant, Emma Stoney. Others include a semi-autistic mathematician, a mutant boy genius who is also semi-autistic, and Sheena, a squid who has been genetically modified to be super-intelligent to make her capable of piloting an extraterrestrial vehicle on a trip to an asteroid called Cruithne (which really exists). Various additional minor roles are played by assorted politicians, scientists, female military astronauts and others.

Not only does the book contain a lot of characters, it also includes a number of cosmic themes, all of which, as we are told in an Afterword, are real. There is the probabilistic scenario called the Carter catastrophe, which says we are all doomed. There is the "Feynman radio" idea of using advanced electromagnetic waves to pick up messages from the future. There is the notion of a "quark nugget" of collapsed matter, with its potentially disastrous implications. And there is Lee Smolin's hypothesis of multiple evolving universes (see his Life of the Cosmos).

As the narrative unfolds we learn that our remote descendants have survived the Carter catastrophe but have found themselves, in the very far future, trapped in a dying universe that is approaching maximum entropy. They therefore find a way of reaching back into the remote past and altering the course of events, by giving rise to mutant super-intelligent children whose efforts lead to a creative destruction of the universe. This, Malenfant comes to understand in his dying moments, will result in the generation of uncountable further universes in which intelligent life can find expansion and fulfillment.

This is a large book in every sense of the word. It is, in fact, too large in my opinion—not in scope but in length. I suspect that in this respect it is aimed at the American market, which seems to like very long novels, but I thought it would have been better if it had been some 30 per cent shorter; the first half, which is largely concerned with Malenfant's political manoeuvring to get his space exploration off the ground in the face of opposition from NASA, could well have been cut considerably. Once Malenfant's final expedition to Cruithne takes off, however, the pace picks up considerably and the descriptions of weightlessness and of life on the surface of Cruithne are vividly imagined and very effective. And there is certainly no shortage of ideas. I think it is questionable whether huge cosmic themes like these can really be dealt with satisfactorily in fictional terms; personally, I prefer my cosmology straight, but this book certainly represents an impressive attempt to present cosmic speculations dramatically.

11 May 2003

%T Time
%A Stephen Baxter
%I HarperCollins
%C London
%D 2000
%G ISBN 0-00-651182-1
%P 456 pp
%K fiction
%O paperback
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