Monday, November 21, 2016

Does Not Stephen Baxter Fill You with a Sense of Wonder?

Scifi readers appreciate good writing as much as anyone, but usually give it lower priority than what old-timers call “a sense of wonder:” a writer’s ability to evoke the immensity of the universe, the deepness of time, the diversity and strangeness of extraterrestrial life. Fandom is not a literary society but a quasi-religious order, and what most of us want from our novels and movies and games is not esthetic pleasure but transcendence. We will tolerate bad writing so long as its author can take us from our mundane lives and tell us of something sublime.

Kurt Vonnegut, who dabbled in science fiction but refused to acknowledge it, satirized scifi writers and fans with his character Kilgore Trout, a dismal writer with a head full of good ideas. In the real world, E.E. “Doc” Smith, who more-or-less invented the galactic-war epic, wedded outsized narratives to a painfully juvenile style L. Ron Hubbard, who when not inventing a religious cult cranked out over a thousand books, crafted space operas (e.g. Battlefield Earth) that wedded stylistic crapulence to delusions of galactic grandeur. The British physicist Stephen Baxter, who began publishing science fiction in the 1980s, fit himself into the Smith-Hubbard-Trout tradition. His early stories and novels, now known as part of “the Xeelee universe,” sketched out a future history of trans-galactic scope. Baxter’s fictions suffered from numerous flaws: clumsy dialogue (“Does it not fill you with a sense of wonder?”), forgettable characters, and the inevitable continuity errors. Fanboys like myself still found these tales fascinating. Despite his mediocrity as a wordsmith Baxter could evoke a sense of immense scale and mystery, and his stories and novels crackled with ideas – aliens trying to manipulate Planck’s constant, spaceships powered by the primordial Grand Unified superforce, pilots who used black holes as traps, mega-structures built of superstrings. They offered pleasure to anyone who enjoyed watching an educated and creative mind at work.

Baxter's initial run of Xeelee stories comprised four novels (Raft, Flux, Ring, and Timelike Infinity) and a couple dozen short stories gathered in the anthology Vacuum Diagrams. They described a future history that began in the 37th century and ended about 10 million years later. The first Space Age apparently ended in our own near future, as humanity needed to devote its resources to repairing our own badly damaged planet, but once people resumed exploring the Solar System they discovered life everywhere, from the caverns beneath Mercury to the frozen wastes of Pluto. A century or two later, as homo sapiens began creeping toward the nearer stars, they ran into more advanced alien races who quickly conquered and degraded them: the group-minded Squeem and the huge, exotic Qax. (Baxter had little talent for alien names.) One of these conquests actually extended itself backward in time. The engineer Michael Poole, a recurrent character in Baxter's stories, constructed a wormhole time bridge to the fifty-fourth century, through which human rebels and alien warships chased one another to do battle. That they avoided a time paradox one may attribute both to their decision to fight in more remote parts of the Solar System, and to Baxter's lack of interest in describing a time paradox.

Through several lucky breaks humanity defeated its conquerors and acquired from them alien superweapons and FTL spacedrives. A more militaristic and fanatical global society began colonizing the galaxy, only to run into an even more powerful alien race: the near-godlike Xeelee. (Told you he was bad with names.) Neither could peacefully coexist with one another by now, and a long series of wars, extending to about 1 million CE, ensued. Human warships broke up planets, set off supernovas, flung neutron stars at their adversaries – this was the background of Flux, set on a supermassive projectile that microscopic humans had colonized – and, in the later novel Exultant, used FTL causality loops to garner tactical intelligence. Seizing at last the Xeelee redoubt at the core of the Milky Way (ca 20-30,000 CE), humanity paused to regroup, but later empires sent warships to attack the superstructure that served as the focus of Xeelee civilization: Bolder's Ring. The Ring was a giant exotic-matter matrix, thousands of light-years across that the Xeelee had built as a gateway to other universes. It served as a plot device in Baxter's early novel Raft, wherein a human warship fell through the Ring into a universe where gravity was one billion times stronger than in our own dimension. (The alternate universe, a realm of breathable gas clouds, floating trees, and retrograde human castaways, resembled Larry Niven's The Integral Trees.) In the last of his initial Xeelee novels, Ring, Baxter revealed that the Xeelee had built the gateway not out of ambition but fear. They wanted to escape our universe because a dark-matter species, the “photino birds,” had colonized nearly all of the stars in our reality and were dramatically accelerating their stellar aging process. By 10 million CE, none would remain luminous enough to support life.

Longtime sci-fi fans will note that Baxter's future history resembles to Olaf Stapleton's novel Star Maker, which continuously “pulled back the camera,” so to speak, to show increasingly large and sophisticated interstellar civilizations. The Xeelee universe employed a similar creative structure, but increased the drama of its stories by making these alien cultures progressively more advanced and threatening. Humans discovered Solar species as intelligent but less powerful than humans, interstellar societies fully capable of conquering Earth, an intergalactic race able to fight off even a Type III human civilization, and a universal race of energy predators whom no-one could fight. This allowed readers to appreciate the gradually escalating scale (in both space and time) of Baxter's speculations, even as he used the old-fashioned narrative framework of interstellar war and exploration to scaffold out the plot.

After a six or seven-year hiatus, Baxter returned to the Xeelee stories in 2003 with a trilogy of novels, “Destiny’s Children” (no relation to the band, I assume), and two more anthologies. Some of these usefully fleshed out episodes that had received little previous attention, like the Human-Xeelee wars (Exultant) or the traumatic Squeem conquest of Earth (“Remembrance”). Others, alas, tacked on ideas that seemed thematically incompatible with the earlier series. Coalescent posited a sisterhood of Romano-British gentry trying to preserve their culture after the fall of Rome, and eventually developing into a eusocial hive entity hiding within the modern Eternal City. (This was Baxter’s riff on Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive.) “Starfall” recounted an interstellar war, fought at slower-than-light speeds, between an Earth-based interstellar empire and its rebel colonies. The “Old Earth” stories took place on a far-future Earth shielded from the photino-bird triumph by a time field that caused time to pass at different rates at different elevations - very rapidly in the mountains, glacially slow in the lowlands. These weren’t necessarily bad tales (okay, I didn’t much care for Coalescent), but they fit poorly with their predecessors; some dealt competently with the concept of deep time, but none of them really evoked the transgalactic scope of novels like Ring or the diversity-of-intelligence theme of Baxter’s early stories. Mostly they just reminded me of a certain ‘70s TV character vaulting his motorcycle over a shark: interesting concept, but not really what we came here to see.

(Illustration above, of Spline* warships on the move, are from and are copyrighted by Rhysy.)

* A race of whale-like intelligent creatures who converted themselves into spacecraft and rented their services to other species. This is one of Baxter's better ideas; Douglas Adams would have liked it. 

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