Manifold: Time, Stephen Baxter

Del Rey, 2000, 440 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-43075-1

Stephen Baxter is a hard-SF author with quite a few outstanding deficiencies, but one thing he’ll never be accused of is lacking ambition. In his previous novels, he imagined an alternate manned expedition to Mars (Voyage), wrote a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (The Time Ships) and collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke on a novel about the end of privacy and history (The Light of Other Days).

It’s an impressive résumé, but with the first volume of the Manifold Trilogy, Baxter demonstrates that he’s not going to stop there. Manifold: Time‘s plot focuses on Reid Malenfant, a business tycoon with a fascination for space exploration. In only a few pages, Baxter takes us back to a familiar hard-SF situation: Feeling betrayed by NASA, a rich entrepreneur tries to establish a private space program but is hampered by the overregulated government agencies. It’s all very comfortable.

But soon afterward, the novel takes a turn towards originality. Our protagonist is warned that the human race will end in two hundred years. A space mission is to be manned by a squid. Hyper-intelligent children are popping up everywhere on the globe. As if that wasn’t enough, an attempt to receive messages from the future actually succeeds. It heavy stuff, instantly addictive for anyone -you know you you are- looking for their next big crunchy hard-SF novel. There are physics lectures, lumps of explanatory narrative, evil Luddites, a reformat-the-universe ending and other genre staples.

It all ties in together, in what is occasionally a very loose fashion. Manifold: Time is a fascinating novel, but I don’t think you can say it’s a tightly-focused one. For one thing, I happen to think that the intellectual climax of the book happens mid-way through, as the protagonists get a glimpse at the future of the galaxy. Promising elements that could yield another book’s worth of material -the biggest single example being the squids- are dropped unceremoniously as the novel advances.

For another, Manifold: Time relies heavily on frustrating clichés of the genre. Reid Malenfant is one; while I can appreciate SF’s need for multicompetent Heinleinian characters, Malenfant isn’t particularly well developed beyond being an icon of how determination can be a palliative for a bunch of skills. He’s a bit too caricatural to work well in this environment, and has done too much in his life to be believable in the context of the novel.

Baxter, like many of his hard-SF colleagues, doesn’t really believe in the goodness of humankind, and once again manipulates his vision of humanity to irrational extremes. In this novel, hyper-intelligent children are beaten up, thrown away and forgotten, then threatened and nuked by governments. It smacks of personal trauma (Was Baxter beaten up for being too smart in grade school? Magic Eight-Ball says yes.) but as for myself I’m getting tired of seeing religious nuts and irrational cults spring up in reaction to change in every single g’damn hard-SF novel. On a related point, I found the mass social reaction to the Carter catastrophe to be far too extreme and simplistic. Humans have an unlimited capacity for self-denial and I happen to think that we’ve immunized ourselves to “end of the world” scenarios with Y2K event and such.

But never mind my last little rant. Truth be told, I had a lot of page-turning fun while reading Manifold: Time, and I will be reading the next volume in the series shortly. It’s easy to target Baxter for his usual tics and problems, but on the other hand, it must be pointed out that there’s a lot of good fun extrapolation elsewhere in the book. I may not believe in the Carter Catastrophe at all, even from a statistical standpoint, but it does bring a delicious urgency to the novel up to its spectacular finish.

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