Manifold: Origin, Stephen Baxter

Del Rey, 2002, 441 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-43079-4

As an avid reader with a limited book-buying budget, I have come to hate inconsistent authors. Greg Bear, for instance; capable of turning out fantastic novels (Moving Mars) and then waste our time with boring crap (Dinosaur Summer). Up until now, Stephen Baxter had proven to be a dependable author, writing book after book of solid hard-SF, often with deficient characters but never without a good lot of interesting ideas.

What makes Manifold: Origin so frustrating isn’t so much the conviction that Baxter is now an unreliable author as how it’s such a let-down from the first two volumes of the Manifold trilogy. Even as “thematic trilogies” go, this third volume is a bust.

A quick reminder: With his Manifold trilogy, Baxter set out to examine the question of sentience in the universe, re-using a cast of similar characters in alternate universes. The first volume, Manifold: Time, posited that humans were alone and showed how they set out to solve the problem. In Manifold: Space, the universe was filled with intelligent life and most of it was hostile to each other. In Manifold Origin, the scope is limited to humans. All kinds of humans.

As the novel begins, our common protagonist Reid Malenfant and his long-suffering wife Emma are flying over Africa. Stuff happens, a mysterious red moon appears, they eject from their plane and a giant vacuum cleaner scoops up Emma as Reid parachutes back to Earth. As with the previous Manifold novels, this is the beginning of Malenfant’s quest to set up an impossible space mission, in this case send a rescue shuttle to the red moon in order to rescue his wife.

At least a hundred pages of filler pass until Malenfant manages to lift off. Once the rescue shuttle lands (with predictably catastrophic consequences), both Malenfants are stuck on the red moon, where they’ll discover that it’s a device traveling in between universes to cross-pollinate the various branches of humanity. It’s an interesting concept. Unfortunately, you have no idea how dull and unpleasant is the execution.

The surface of the Red Moon isn’t a fun or peaceful place: Various sub-species of humanity cohabit there, most of them barely above pre-historical social levels. There is a considerable amount of cannibalism, inter-species warfare, senseless deaths and unpleasant mating rituals. Oh, and slavery too. I have accused Baxter of being grim before, but I really had no real grasp of how depressing he really could be. It gets worse, naturally. The end of the novel is as pointless as British SF authors can make’em, which is to say very.

My main objection to Manifold: Origin is that it’s nowhere near as densely imagined as Baxter’s previous books. Good ideas are far and few in-between, and the whole novel constantly feels padded. Most of the non-homo-sapiens viewpoints can safely be skipped without any loss of comprehension. The whole mission-preparation segment is overindulgent, stopping the action just as we needed to speed up the plot. Even worse, the ending kills off most of the cast, doesn’t solve any problem, barely presents a lame explanation and leaves whatever remaining characters in an unbearable hell.

The only good news are that given the loose relationship between the three volumes of the Manifold trilogy, you can read the first two and skip out entirely on the third without any harm. At the very least, don’t rush off and buy the hardcover like I did; you’ll be sorry.

As far as I’m concerned, though, Baxter gets taken off not only my hardcover list, but off my buy list altogether. I’m sure he’ll get over it some day.

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