Harper Collins, 1998, 359 pages, C$37.50 hc, ISBN 0-00-225427-1
I’ll admit it right away: For a hard-SF student, I’ve been negligent in my recommended readings. I skipped over Benford, forgot Forward and simply didn’t pick up Clement. But I’m catching up on Stephen Baxter. I really liked The Time Ships and thought of no better way to follow up than to borrow the British edition of his latest collection, Traces, at the local library.
I’ve discussed elsewhere my preference for collections over novels for unfamiliar authors, so there’s no need to go over it in length again here. Briefly put; a short story collection like Traces gives a better idea of the author’s scope and versatility than one single long-form story.
So what can one deduce of Baxter’s interests, strengths and weaknesses from Traces? A fascination for history probably; alternate history certainly. A competence with the hard sciences. An impatience with overdetailed characterization. A melancholy for the now scaled-back dreams of the early space age. A respect for the elders of SF like Wells, Verne, Clarke…
But by far the best thing about Baxter is that he’s fully aware that “short” is half a successful short story. In 360 pages, Baxter packs in 21 stories; no fifty-page novellas here, no interminable seed novel.
Perhaps the most regrettable thing about Traces is that despite being composed of easily categorizable stories, there is no attempt at organization. David Brin’s collection Otherness did this with some success; maybe Baxter could have done the same, redistributing his comments about stories around these categories instead of lumping them into one single afterword.
There could be an “Alternate Histories” section, with pieces like “No Longer Touch the Earth” (where Aristotle’s concept of a celestial orrery proves to be true… and unnoticed until Amundsen and Scott) and “Brigantia Angels” (where the British invent the plane in 1895).
A more specialized section could be dedicated to “Alternate Space Programs”, led by “Moon Six” (an astronaut on the moon is carried in several alternate realities where space exploration is at different stages of development) and followed by “Mittelwelt” (Germany wins WWI and is able to launch a space program), “A Journey to the King Planet” (England discovers antimatter and jump-starts a space program during Queen Victoria’s reign) and “Pilgrim 7” (a Mercury-program astronaut orbiting the Earth is carried away to a more peaceful alternate reality shortly after the Cuba crisis goes nuclear)
There could always be a section called “I learned from the masters”, where Baxter could prove that he’s able to write stories like Wells (“Columbiad”, where Jules Verne’s classic From the Earth to the Moon is fact), Clarke (“Traces”, a big-scale remix of “The Star”), Niven (“Something for Nothing”, which has significant similarities with Niven’s “The Hole Man”) and golden-age planetary-exploration adventures (“In the Manner of Tree”, with requisite gruff starship captain and mysterious natives)
Traces is not a flawless anthology, sinning sometime by tediousness (please forgive me if I admit to skipping large parts of both “Downstream” and “The Blood of Angels”) and pointlessness (“George and the Comet”’s point is undiscernible, “Inherit the Earth” simply falls flat.) But the remainder is pretty good, and certainly worth considering in paperback at your next trip to the local SF store.
Any author that can claim to rewrite Superman and actually do a good job (“Good News”) as well as write a rousing story about a dead classical poet (Lord Byron in “Darkness”) deserves at least a modicum of attention. Traces might just be the best way to get acquainted with Stephen Baxter.