Manifold: Space, Stephen Baxter

Del Rey, 2001, 452 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-43077-8

The possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence has fascinated science-fiction writers even since H.G. Wells’ novels, and probably even before then. Certainly, when considering current scientific knowledge, there is nothing particularly surprising in that what happened once on Earth may certainly happen elsewhere. Combine that to the multiplicity of planets in the Milky Way alone, and the probability of extra-terrestrial intelligence becomes not merely conjecture, but quasi-certitude.

There is one problem, though; even though we have looked hard for any trace of extra-terrestrial life, the vexing reality is that we have been unable to see, from our limited perspective, any trace of ET intelligence. No unambiguous visual sign. No radio signals. No markers on Earth or on the moon. Nothing. Given the galaxy’s numerous planets and lengthy life-span, any civilization breaking through should be able to conquer the galaxy in a matter of millennia. Why aren’t we seeing anything of the sort?

This question (the Fermi paradox, from Enrico Fermi’s famous axiom “Where are they? If they existed, they would be here.”) has fascinated many, but Stephen Baxter has devoted an entire trilogy at trying to figure out plausible reasons why we might not be seeing anyone else at the moment. We should use the word “trilogy” loosely, though, as the Manifold series re-uses the same protagonist (Reid Malenfant) and some recurring characters in wholly different universes where even the nature of reality might be different.

In Manifold: Time, Baxter showed a universe where humanity was alone, and the steps they took in order to correct in situation. In Manifold: Space, there are aliens everywhere. And they’re not really friendly.

To some degree, Baxter’s logical train of thought brings him to the same conclusions than Greg Bear (The Forge of God) and Charles Pellegrino (The Killing Star, etc.): Natural competition for resources, the awesome powers of extra-solar civilizations and plain simple fear all lead to a winner-takes-all mentality. To put it bluntly, whoever wipes out everyone else will win.

Manifold: Space comes from the British tradition of SF, and it’s far from being a cheery book. Speaking as a colonial, the Brits know a thing or two about losing an empire, and this melancholy permeates Space like a stain. As Malenfant’s travels take him further and further is the far-future, we get a long-scope view of human evolution, with all its foibles Humanity either destroys itself or is wiped out by external forces a few times in this novel, and the effect isn’t a lot of fun. Interestingly enough, we get a better appreciation for the awesome power of time in this novel rather than in Manifold: Time.

If you want to continue comparing this novel to its predecessor, the resemblances are interesting: Both novels are obvious work of ideas, not characters: Malenfant is borderline-unlikable, and the other characters are cyphers more than anything else. Both books also share a curious structure in which the biggest punches are to be found at the middle, and not the end of the narrative, which gradually loses power as it advances and diverts itself in meaningless side-shows.

But the novel’s impact stands out, mostly as a boffo twelve-pack of hard-SF Big Ideas. Anyone with an interest in the Fermi Paradox will love Baxter’s speculations, even though it’s hard to get away from other SF authors’ thinking on the subject. Manifold: Space could have used some extra trimming (the whole natural-nuclear-reactor subplot plot branch struck me as a let-down), but I don’t think that any hard-SF fan will seriously regret reading the whole book. It’s decent high-powered idea-driven speculative fiction and a decent companion volume to Manifold: Time. Good stuff for hard-SF enthusiasts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *