Tag Archives: Stephen Baxter

Time Odyssey 2: Sunstorm, Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

<em class="BookTitle">Time Odyssey 2: Sunstorm</em>, Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

Del Rey, 2006 reprint of 2005 original, 356 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-45251-8

Freakishly obsessive readers of these reviews have probably noticed a shift in my attitude toward Science Fiction over the past few years.  I read less of it (non-fiction seems more interesting to me these days), I don’t look at it so uncritically and I get less and less patient with its self-indulgences.  Anyone would be forgiven to conclude that I’m slowly moving away from the genre.

But that’s not true: SF is still my favourite genre, and I’m going to use Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter’s Sunstorm as my proof.  Because the real test of a fan is whether they can still find something worthwhile in an otherwise average genre novel.  Sunstorm won’t go down as any kind of classic (in fact, barely five years after its publication, it has already faded away) and yet I was able to sink into it like a warm comforter.  It’s a book that I can read on auto-pilot, almost without any effort given how close the novel’s assumptions are to my own.  From the moment the dumb premise is explained and the real meat of the novel is exposed, it’s pure classic old-school SF, and it made me smile even though I can acknowledge that I have already forgotten/forgiven most of its dull or ridiculous parts.

As the second entry in the as-of-yet-unfinished “Time’s Odyssey” series, Sunstorm is supposed to be a follow-up to Clarke/Baxter’s Time’s Eye (2004), but save for a very loose tying of both novels together by common antagonists and a viewpoint character, there’s little link between the two stories.  While Time’s Eye imagined a showdown between Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan on an Earth littered with slivers of its own past for no greater rationale than alien amusement (talk about a fanboy premise run amok), Sunstorm features the same plot-justifying aliens destabilizing the sun.  After an initial catastrophe early in the novel during while the sun pulses once with devastating results, scientists discover that within five years another building pulse of energy will essentially fry all of Earth.

That’s when the fun begins.  Because while nearly every other non-genre writer would jump on an opportunity to write about a world coming to grip with its imminent destruction, both Clarke and Baxter hail from the old can-do school of SF as an hymn to human ingenuity.  Rather than roll over and wait for the ultimate sunburn, much of humanity unites behind a grandiose project to build a planet-sized shade that will deflect enough of the radiation.

I have always been very susceptible to engineering-fiction, and so within pages of the project’s inception, Sunstorm was making me purr with details of how such a shield could be launched, built, assembled and steered.  Scientists come up with a series of solutions to bewildering technical problems, religious fundamentalists mount attacks on the project, hardy blue-collar workers assemble everything in orbit, governments mount last-ditch defenses to further alleviate the effect of the impending sun-storm and readers gets to enjoy a classic SF novel.  The prose is direct, the conflicts aren’t complex, the resourcefulness of the characters is considerable and the enemies are clearly identified (so are the fools, who deservedly burn after disregarding helpful scientific advice): Sunstorm can’t claim to sophistication, and that’s part of its charm.  As comfort reading for people having grown up on a certain type of Science Fiction, it’s hard to beat.

As a follow-up to Time’s Eye, it’s too disconnected to be of much use: It solves no questions and just uses the alien threat as another plot driver.  But as a reminder of how much fun SF can be when it gets down to the essentials of why it exists as a genre, it’s a highly enjoyable read even though it’s not much of an elegant piece of fiction.  SF fans will love it, non-SF fans will dismiss it, and sometimes that’s exactly how genre novels should be.

Titan, Stephen Baxter

Harper Prism, 1997, 676 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105713-4

In the first few chapters of Stephen Baxter’s 1997 novel Titan, space shuttle Columbia crashes upon re-entry and China sends its first astronaut into space. The timing is slightly off (both happen simultaneously in 2004, rather than over 2003 as it happened in our reality) but here’s hoping that Baxter’s extrapolative powers stop there, because the rest of the novel is of a bleakness quite unlike anything you’ve read outside of, well, other Stephen Baxter novels.

Once Columbia reduced to bits and pieces over the desert, America goes in a tailspin. NASA is told to mothball itself, an ultra-conservative president is elected to the White House (eek), tensions between China and the USA grow ever more dangerous and apathetic American teens seems content to wear tattoos while shaping their own feces in artistic shapes. All is lost? Not quite: Space convert Paula Benacerraf comes forth with a bold new plan to take over all that’s left of the American space program and send a Shuttle to Titan. It’s a desperate mission, maybe even a suicidal mission, but if it can show the way to bigger and better things…

Well, don’t bet on it. A decade-long Shuttle mission to Titan is insane in even the best of circumstances, and Baxter doesn’t miss a nasty trick as he whittles down his cast of characters. Titan is positively ghoulish in how it starts badly and keeps getting worse. And worse. And even worse. This novel rivals most horror films in how it keeps upping the body count through the stupidest and most gruesome ways possible. Baxter has often been a gloomy writer (see the Manifold series for more unremitting bleakness) but there’s a sadistic streak to Titan that makes it his most depressing book yet even as the ending is meant to be uplifting.

Heck, it’s depressing even it’s obvious that he’s unfairly stacking the deck against his characters, if not humanity itself: Professional astronauts get stuck in solar flares, biochemists poison themselves, humankind dooms itself to destruction and no-one says a peep as America takes itself apart. The Internet is shut down, ethnic viruses are planned by the US government (huh?) and everyone whistles as the extreme right-wing shuts down institutions of higher learning and humans are left to die in space. You would have thought, somehow, that there was more to space exploration than the USA, that the left-wing would have emigrated to Canada or that no one would be stupid enough to re-align an asteroid on Earth, even for some (hand-wave, here) obscure reason. Baxter may have forgotten to include a chapter in which all of humanity undergoes forced lobotomies. Titan often doesn’t make sense, and even acknowledges its silliness at times, such as one character wonders how they’ve been able to take control of everything in the American space inventory from Shuttles to Saturn-Vs. Character development? Don’t look for it here; they remain sketches even as their hardware is lavished with details. Social/political development doesn’t fare any better. Titan, in many ways, is a profoundly stupid book.

Plus there’s the length factor. Titan, as a proud hard-SF novel, is positively crammed with technical details. While it enhances the feel of the book as a credible piece of Science Fiction, it can quickly overloads the narrative with far too much detail. Exhibit number one: The first section, a snappy little action sequence that ends up splattered over not less than seventy pages. Yikes. It doesn’t really get any better. Exhibit number two: An entire X-15 subplot which has absolutely no impact on the rest of the book. Exhibit number three: The entire last section, which could have been cut with no detrimental effect on the novel’s impact.

So; Depressing, silly and overwritten. Is there anything left to save from Titan? Why yes. Even despite all of these flaws, it remains compulsively readable throughout. There’s a fascinating sense of inevitable doom floating over the whole story, as the window of survival shuts down over humanity. Part of it is shared sadistic delight at how bad things can become. Another is just, well, narrative inertia: We might as well see what will befall our characters next. Certainly, Titan is an unusual piece of hard-SF. A more conventional work would have used the Titan expedition as a rallying cry for the forces of light and rationalism. Here… well…

A word of caution, though: There are few words to describe the choking sense of dread that ends up contaminating the novel, and by extent the mind of anyone reading it. If you want a pleasant New Year’s Eve, for goodness’ sake don’t spend it reading Titan!

Raft, Stephen Baxter

Grafton, 1991, 251 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-586-21091-1

It’s common wisdom that every overnight success takes years to attain, but it’s still a surprise to find out that such a staple of contemporary hard-SF as Stephen Baxter “merely” published his first novel in 1991. Raft (an expansion of a previous short story) is, in retrospect, a pretty good harbinger of Baxter’s later work, from the strengths to the flaws to the full plot of entire subsequent novels.

As with many such hard-SF tales, Raft is first and foremost a description of a peculiar environment and the cool things you can do in it. In this case, the entire universe is different, with a gravitational constant multiplied by some ludicrous factor. (“one billion times stronger”, argues the back cover with the supplied italics, which means business in a non-American edition) As a result, stars have a diameter of two or three kilometres, nebulae are perfectly inhabitable and humans have a perceptible gravity field. (which would logically make them pretty dirty in no time, but let’s not go there)

Cool little playground, but not if you’re Rees, a child in a tiny human group that has been stranded there for centuries, living off the cannibalized parts of its own space ship, watching helplessly as the very fabric of this particular nebulae is doomed to extinction. Our protagonist has quite the usual hard-SF hero checklist in front of him: Be curious, escape his dead-end surroundings, get an unconventional education, make a significant discovery, be thrown around in various picaresque adventures, make new friends, draw up a bold plan and save most of his people. Whew. Plus, given that he’s a teenager, he’ll have to do all of that while subject to hormonal mood swings likely to make him brilliant one moment, and whiny a few minutes later.

As a protagonist, Rees is sufficiently interesting, which may not sound like heavy praise, but actually is when considering the usual crop of hard-SF heroes, most of whom struggle to keep a distinctive name, let alone a personality. At the very least he’s all right and is curious about the universe, in a bid to allow the reader some ready-made sympathy. The novel is decently readable, with the usual hard-SF exposition ceding an appropriate place to the astronomical curiosities inherent to the heavy-gravity universe. (I have a few doubts about some inconsistencies I though I spotted in Baxter’s scenes, but as I’m not a physicists I’ll just shut up. It just may be a visualization problem, as some of the stuff is hard to imagine for non-specialists.)

Readers with an interest in Baxter’s overall career will find Raft even more fascinating given that it neatly encapsulates, in barely 250 pages, most of the themes Baxter would later re-use in somewhat longer works. The weird environments (Ring), the depressingly violent human derivatives (Manifold: Origin), the spaceborne sea creatures (Manifold: Time) and, above all, the ludicrously improbable seat-of-the-pants space programs (oh… just about everything from Titan to Moonseed). Baxter’s continuing problems with human psychology are also on display, but here we’ll follow the tacit convention of hard-SF fans and not discuss the subject any further. You can always read it as a juvenile if you want.

No matter; as a “weird environment” hard-SF novel, Raft has few things to envy to such classics as The Integral Trees and Mission of Gravity. It’s readable, interesting, decently-paced and even awe-inspiring at times. Good fun for readers with an interest in those kind of things and a most promising start for one of today’s leading hard-SF authors.

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.

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.

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.

Voyage, Stephen Baxter

Harper Collins, 1996, 772 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105708-8

It’s nearly impossible nowadays to have more than a passing interest in space without feeling betrayed by politics. It’s a sobering thought to realize that no one has left Earth’s orbit in more a quarter of a century, or, personally, in my lifetime. The glorious results of Apollo have not been, to speak like managers, “leveraged” to better and bolder things. No Moonbase. No exploitation of lunar resources. No expeditions to Mars. After a few spectacular missions, the United States just… stopped. Politicians cut NASA’s budget, essentially stopping space exploration in favour of some ill-defined social programs that, frankly, don’t seem to work very well.

This theme of betrayal runs deep in Stephen Baxter’s fiction. In Traces, Baxter collected several short stories about alternate space programs. In Titan, astronauts steal a shuttle to go to Jupiter. In Moonseed, Baxter rails on for a while on NASA’s shortcomings. And now, in Voyage, Baxter really lets himself go and describes an alternate space program in which Americans land on Mars… in 1986.

The point of divergence between our universe and theirs, surprisingly enough, turns to be the oldest of those “what if” scenarios, which is to say a different fate for John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. JFK lives to be an indefatigable booster for the space program, which realigns its priorities after the first moon landing to develop a one-shot Mars mission for 1986. Various difficulties intervene, stuff and marriages blow up, people are selected to go to Mars and, as you might guess, the novel ends on Mangala Valles itself.

As suggested by the introduction to this review, Voyage is less of a story and much more of a book-length treatise and analysis of the impact of politics on the space program since the sixties. As such, don’t expect compelling drama, heart-stopping suspense or heavy theatrics. In his quest for verisimilitude, Baxter concentrates on how it might have really happened rather than on constant jolts of action. (There is one good jolt midway through, and it has more impact due to the lack of action preceding it.) Even the structure of the novel -told in flashbacks between liftoff and Mars landing- seems to conspire against heightened tension. There isn’t really any suspense in knowing if the mission will make it to Mars. Indeed, the novel ends on a note that seems to suggest that the return from Mars itself is unimportant.

But, ah-ha, the “getting there” aspect is very well-done. The amount of detail that Baxter packs in Voyage are nothing short of awe-inspiring. In his mind, he’s obviously setting out to re-create a complete space program, and he achieves it successfully. All levels of the space program are covered, from the astronauts to the NASA administrators to the humble contractors doing more than “just their job” in order to put Americans on Mars. Authentic documents are reproduced, and seemingly-authentic ones are written.

One small nit I had was the lack of other changes in this alternate history. The presidents remain the same. Moon landing date and Apollo 13 are unaffected. Historical events don’t seem to be disturbed by JFK’s survival. Sure, it focuses the interest on the Mars mission, but still…

A more serious issue (which is not necessarily a complaint) is that for all its intricate detail and constant proselytism, Voyage fails to convince that this alternate history is somehow better than ours. It makes a powerful argument that we should go to Mars, but the post-Voyage space program seems poised to stop like ours did, except without any Shuttles or Voyagers in service. Voyage literally ends once someone steps on Mars. Maybe Baxter wants to give us an idea of the required trade-offs?

But if your kicks tend to be space-related, and/or if you have a fondness for Hard SF and historical novels, give Voyage a try. It’s an ambitious work that highlights new possibilities for the genre, and represents an impressive intellectual achievement in its own right.

Moonseed, Stephen Baxter

Harper Prism, 1998, 534 pages, C$20.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-105044-X

Sometime, I wonder how Hollywood producers deal with it.

No, I’m not talking about the sleeping-with-supermodels-and-rolling-in-cash part. That I can reasonably understand. But I really wonder how they have to deal with the trade-offs between story and budget. Consider disaster movie, which are all about showing expensive catastrophes on screen. If you’re on a limited budget (and even $150M is a limited budget), how can you deliver a really good disaster film when it’s literally too expensive to put it all on screen?

This isn’t a problem in novels, because when you get down to it, prose writers have essentially an unlimited budget for visual effects. They can blow up the earth for exactly the same amount of money that have two minor character talk to each other. No publishing house is ever going to bankrupt themselves by investing in a spectacular historical war novel over a simple romantic comedy. Movie studios, on the other hand, pretty much tattooed HEAVEN’S GATE in the forehead of every script acquisition manager…

Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed proves how much more satisfying a disaster story can be in written format. Not only is it more spectacular, but it’s also better-constructed and far more clever than its Hollywood counterparts.

It all begins on the night when astronaut Geena Bourne and geologist Henry Meacher decide to divorce. Venus blows up and Henry is transferred to Edinburgh, where a mysterious silvery dust soon begins ravaging the countryside. Before long, the Edinburgh dust pool is growing at exponential rate, and it becomes clear that they’ve got to stop it. Evidence points at contamination from one of the Moon rocks, so NASA puts together a mission using present-day technology to go back there…

Stephen Baxter is known for being a hard-SF writer, and Moonseed will do nothing to diminish this reputation. He plays the SF game and follows the rules, which does give a delicious particularity to the part where NASA puts together a baling-wire mission to go back to the moon. Otherwise, spectacular scenes abound, whether it’s Edinburgh being consummated by the “Moonseed” or Seattle being erased by a tidal wave. Big bucks special effects, backed by I-guess-accurate physics.

Moonseed is less capable when it comes to human characters. Some are barely introduced and then forever forgotten (Marge Case, Jenny Calder, Cecilia Stanley, etc…), others are superfluous (Blue Ishiguro, Hamish “Bran” McCrae and the remainder of the clichéd cult subplot), while the protagonists are involved in quasi-soap-opera plot complications to keep them together. (No, but seriously, wasn’t it possible to select a worse three-person moon team?)

But it doesn’t really matter, disaster stories and hard-SF novels being what they are. Even the lengths of the novel can be a good thing when they add such richness. Who cares about individual humans when the whole race is at risk? Moonseed is far more original than the usual catastrophe scenarios, ironically by going back to the source disaster story, the classic When Worlds Collide. The ending accelerates the pace of the novel, leading to a wide-open conclusion that truly rewards the reader.

So, next time you’re contemplating paying almost 10$ for a disaster movie, consider Moonseed as an alternative. Easy reading, original threat, imaginative plotting, neat gadgets and cool scenes not constrained by a fixed SFX budget. What more could you ask of an end-of-the-world story?

Traces, Stephen Baxter

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.

The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter

Harper Prism, 1995, 520 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105648-0

Ah, new bookstores… For the average bibliophile, few things are as pleasant in life than discovering a new bookstore. In the Ottawa area, we’ve been lucky lately (despite the closing of the House of Speculative Fiction): Both a downtown mega-bookstore (Chapters) and a new SF bookstore (Basilisk Dreams Books) have opened in the last six months or so.

But this isn’t a review of a bookstore… To make a long and potentially boring story short, let’s just say that my first trip to resulted in the purchase of a long-awaited book: The Time Ships. Curiously enough, this particular edition isn’t supposed to be published in Canada… Indeed, the jacket copy lists only one (American) price. Bad move from Harper Prism, or restrictive rights agreements?

Still, you can’t keep an SF reader away from a good book. My reasons to be curious about The Time Ships were diverse: It was a 1996 Hugo Nominee. It wasn’t available at the library. It wasn’t available at any other bookstore. AND, it’s the first “approved” sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Now, understand that I’m no particular fan of Wells. His prose style was fine for the turn of the century, but today… it’s a bit full of cobwebs. But even then, one cannot help to admire the legacy left by a few novels and shorter stories. Wells tackled on themes as invisibility, time-travel and alien invasions a full century before INDEPENDENCE DAY… with considerably more intelligence. But that’s another essay.

The Time Ships picks up where Wells’ story ended: The Time Traveller resolves to go back to the Eloi/Morlock world. Of course, things aren’t that simple, and five hundred pages of various adventures follow. We get far-future extrapolation, an alternate history, a robinsonade and another far-future big-canvas scenario. To say more would be a spoiler.

The book is told “a la Wells”, which is to say, using a pseudo-Victorian style. I wasn’t too enthused about that, but I was surprised at how readable the whole book was. This, incidentally, also makes The Time Ships surprisingly accessible to any reader unfamiliar with science-fiction: The complicated concepts of alternate worlds, time-travel, etc… are explained to them as they are explained to our time-travelling (Victorian) hero. We sometimes get the false impression that this is a book Wells could have written himself.

But Baxter did write the book, and should be deservedly proud of it: He tackles on big subjects here and succeeds more than he fails. I felt the book was more interesting when he veered off Wells’ ideas than when he followed the first book’s story, but that’s a highly subjective opinion.

The Hugo nomination for this book was warranted. Whether it should have won is another matter entirely, which I won’t discuss here… But this is still a superior read: Grab it, read it. Baxter is now on my “to catch up on!” list.