Flux (Xeelee #03) – Stephen Baxter (1993)
I confess to being a tad ambivalent about Baxter’s work which confuses me a little. They are eminently readable and my limited knowledge of Science gives me no reason to question any of the Chemistry or Physics upon which Baxter has based this novel.
This is the third in the Xeelee sequence, a loosely connected set of novels in which Humanity is an inferior race in a vast universe. The Xeelee, godlike beings far older than Man, are building an inconceivably huge artefact – a ring – through which they may be planning to leave for another universe in order to escape an as yet unexplained foe.
Baxter’s novels are generally set against this background focusing on the lives of humans in various circumstances. This adds a sense of scale of time and space, emphasising the contrast between the depths of space, the timescales of alien projects and the small lives of individual humans.
The irony in this instance is that the human factor is particularly tiny since the adapted humans are living within the mantle of a neutron star and are fractions of a millimetre tall.
One could argue that Baxter has here created the novel concept of a pocket universe within a pocket universe.
The novel begins with a tribe of humans living in primitive conditions along the Maglines between ‘The Crust’ and ‘The Quantum Sea’. The star appears to be becoming unstable however and fluctuations in the magnetic field create the same results as an earthquake, tearing the community apart and forcing some of them up into the strange forest that grows down from the crust. Most of the tribe have no knowledge of what lies beyond their own territorial boundaries, although their oral history tells of their creation by Ur-humans from another world.
They are able to ‘wave’ through the air, guided and attracted by the vortex lines of the star’s magnetic field. Above is The Crust, covered by a forest of trees, and below is the Quantum Sea.
An old man, Adda, is injured hunting, but he and his companions are rescued and taken to the city of Parz at the star’s pole.
In this second, larger, pocket universe, the citizens have retained some knowledge of their forebears but have no real idea why they were placed there, although it is revealed that another community of humans, far more severely augmented, are living within the core of the star.
The fluctuations begin to threaten the city and when a Xeelee ship is seen firing into the star it becomes clear they must try and contact the ‘Colonists’ at the core, who may have technology to avert the Xeelee threat.
My ambivalence stems from the fact that I read this novel several years ago and have no recollection of it whatsoever. Therein lies the issue. Despite the fact that this is an exciting premise, the scientific basis is impeccable and the novel is a decent read with a good denouement, there is a lack of tension and excitement. Like some other works of Baxter it is slightly… dull.
Part of this is the characterisation. The main characters might well have stepped straight out of your average British town. They are generally well-meaning and polite and lack any psychological light and shade. Adda’s tribe have been living in isolation for ten generations and yet seem to slot into the civilised city of Parz without any major problems.
The overall concept, written prior to 9/11, is that the augmented humans are being used to drive the neutron star into the Xeelee Ring mechanism in an effort to damage it, making them (unwitting ultimately) suicide bombers.
Baxter could have made far more of the rationale and morality of this as it no doubt reflects the nature of what Humanity has become.
For me, and Baxter no doubt has an army of fans to leap to his defence, it is a flawed novel which could have been far better given a serious rewrite.