My life in outer space

Hard SF

Ring – Stephen Baxter (Xeelee #04) (1994)

Ring

There’s an awful lot going on in this volume and, to be fair, Baxter has his work cut out tying the events in with the other Xeelee universe narratives.
The Paradoxa organisation has evolved in the wake of Michael Poole’s original journey to the future in ‘Timelike Infinity’ and the subsequent discovery that there were powerful and inimical aliens out there. Paradoxa has now become a powerful body whose remit is to preserve Humanity. What has also been discovered is that someone or something is destabilising our sun. Paradoxa has bred an engineered human, Lieserl, who will grow at the rate of a human year every day and whose personality will be downloaded into an AI which will be able to function within the sun. The organisation have also commandeered a prototype interstellar ship to take a thousand year trip along with a portable wormhole so that on their return – like Poole – they will be able to return through the wormhole from 5 million years in the future.
Things don’t go according to plan though, and the crew – who may be the only humans left in the universe – devise a plan to head for The Ring, the vast galaxy-devouring structure built by the godlike Xeelee.
It’s certainly a tour de force of Hard SF. Baxter throws in an entire gallimaufry of complex physics concepts, such as the photino birds, creatures of dark matter who can live within stars, structures millions of light years wide built of cosmic string, exotic matter and extraordinarily detailed explanations of the lifecycles of suns.
The Ring itself, once we finally reach the beast, is the ultimate (as of yet) Big Dumb Object, woven of cosmic string and with a diameter of millions of light years.
One could argue that Baxter here has possibly over-egged the cosmic pudding and that the narrative could have possibly have been dealt with in two separate novels, to give space for some of the many characters to live and breathe.
Clearly the science can not be faulted and where excitement can be found here it is in the wonderful tour-de-forces of scientific hyperbole which here and there manages to recreate that sense of wonder that is all too lacking in most modern SF.
If it fails anywhere it is maybe in a lack of suspense, the peaks and troughs of emotional tension, cliffhangers, the things that make us want to read on. Certainly there are action sequences, but they lack a certain vivacity, something common to Baxter novels.
Overall though, it’s a marvellous conclusion (at least in internal chronology) to Baxter’s Xeelee universe.

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Cycle of Fire – Hal Clement (1957)

Cycle of Fire

Hal Clement’s genius was in his talent to write rounded likeable characters and set them into a background of realistically thought out planets and environments.
This is no exception and can be seen as a kind of bridge between Stanley G Weinbaum’s ‘A Martian Odyssey’ and Barry B Longyear’s ‘Enemy Mine’.
Young Nils Kruger finds himself stranded on alien world. He had earlier become separated from his colleagues on a survey expedition and they now believe him dead.
This world is highly volcanic and part of the complex orbit of one planet and two suns.
Not far away is Dar Lang Ahn, an alien male whose glider crashed while he was travelling back to his home in the Ice Ramparts carrying valuable books for his people.
Nils finds the alien sick and dehydrated, and shows him how to get water from the analogue cactus plants that stud the desert, which makes Nils suspect that Dar might not be a native of this world either.
Communicating at first in gestures and drawings, the two begin their journey toward safety and knowledge of each other.
Clement throws in cosmological and anthropological mysteries along the way which are not fully explained until quite near the end.
To a certain extent novels like this shame many of today’s writers who, it seems, can’t be bothered to world build or create credible alien lifecycles, preferring to employ ‘Star Trek’ aliens who are essentially humanoid with two genders – although they may be lizards or birds – or just human with a few bumpy ridges on their noses.
Clement does worldbuilding in the truest sense and this is almost a masterclass in designing a species that has evolved to survive on a world with an eccentric orbit involving two suns.
The bonus is that it is also highly enjoyable.


Tau Zero – Poul Anderson (1970)

Tau Zero

Based upon Anderson’s short story “To Outlive Eternity” (Galaxy 1967), this is a marvellous exercise in exploring the concepts of Einsteinian physics, and one which surprisingly is for the most part character based. The interstellar ship ‘Leonora Christine’ is carrying a cargo of colonists and scientists to Beta Virginis. Anderson does a marvellous job of describing the ship which uses the Bussard Ramjet principle of capturing loose hydrogen atoms in flights and converting them to energy, gradually increasing acceleration toward the speed of light.
Not long into the flight, however, the crew discover that a cloud of interstellar gas has drifted between the ship and its destination. The ship is moving too fast to change course and must therefore risk damaging or destroying itself by flying through.
The ship survives but the crew soon discover that the deceleration unit has been crippled, which means that the ship and its passengers will continue to accelerate toward the speed of light.
Anderson manages to balance the mind-numbing complexities of the science with the human dramas being played out inside the ship. There the effects of time dilation mean that time is passing increasingly faster in the outside Universe than for the humans in the tin can.
Some of the characters such as Lindgren, are Scandinavian, since Poul – although born in the US – was of Scandinavian parentage. He also spent some time in Denmark it seems and employs his background to good effect here. Refreshingly, the crew are multinational, including Japanese, Russians, Canadians and one particularly obnoxious American, although it’s not known if this reflected Anderson’s personal views on the country of his birth.
There is an interesting situation on Earth at the outset, where Sweden, who were in charge of a worldwide nuclear disarmament programme, have become effectively rulers of a worldwide Swedish Empire.
It is interesting to note that current American SF, particularly the mainstream novels, tend to be somewhat insular, what I have elsewhere described as Americocentric. Jack McDevitt, Geoffrey A Landis and to a certain extent Greg Bear (coincidentally Poul Anderson’s son-in-law) to name but three, tend to write SF which postulates a future seemingly dominated by American culture or a near future in which everything happens in the US and the rest of the world is not really considered. Anderson was never that lazy.
For its time it’s an amazing piece of Hard SF in which the backdrop – measured by time and space – expands exponentially throughout the novel as the small dramas of the crew are acted out.
The denouement – which probably wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny today, if indeed it was able to in Nineteen-Seventy – is an uplifting joyful moment and brings the book to a satisfying if somewhat improbable conclusion.


Axiomatic – Greg Egan (1995)

Axiomatic

This is an interesting collection of Egan’s published stories from the early Nineties, many of which examine the Dickian issue of what it means to be conscious and how we define ‘the personality’. Egan often looks at this question from intriguing and sometimes oblique angles.

The Infinite Assassin (1991)

Interzone 48 – June 1991

The protagonist is a man employed because his self tends to remain consistent across infinite realities in a worlds where a drug called S allows access to these parallel worlds. His job is to track down the few people who do not just dream their alternate lives but drag the rest of us in there with them.

The Hundred Light-Year Diary (1992)

Interzone 55 – January 1992

The conceit behind this story is that we have discovered a reverse universe running backwards and can receive ‘diaries’ from those who have already lived their lives identically to ours. Thus one can review one’s life in advance. However, the question is how much of the truth would be included?

Eugene (1990)

Interzone 36 – June 1990

A satirical tale of eugenics and designer baby making

The Caress (1990)

Asimov’s – Jan 1990

A detective in the near future investigating a homicide finds a chimera with the body of a leopard and the head of a woman and becomes embroiled in a strange world of bioengineering and art.

Blood Sisters (1991)

Interzone 44 – February 1991

A story of twin sisters who take different oaths in life, and one of whom becomes the victim of a genetic disease. the tale however, takes an unexpected direction.

Axiomatic (1990)

Interzone 41 – November 1991

Egan examines one of the possible outcomes of a society where one can purchase implants to change the foundations of one’s personality in order to remove deep seated feelings like grief, religious belief or inhibitions, or to implant them.

The Safe-Deposit Box (1990)

Asimov’s – September 1990

A rather complex tale of a man who wakes up every day in the same city but in a different body

Seeing (1995)

Axiomatic (1995)

A future boss of a movie studios awakens after an assassination experience to discover that he is viewing himself from a point near the ceiling.

A Kidnapping (1995)

Axiomatic (1995)

A wealthy man receives a videocall telling him that they ‘have his wife’ and demanding a ransom. Another examination of what it means – objectively in this case – for a personality to be copied.

Learning to Be Me (1990)

Interzone #37 – July 1990

The Ndoli Jewel – as featured in other Egan stories – is at the centre of this tale of a question of identity.

The Moat (1991)

Aurealis #3 – 1991

A future Australia in an overpopulated world where a lawyer working for displaced immigrants is disturbed by his fiancee’s tales of a rapist’s sperm samples having no discernible DNA. A clever story that manages to cover contemporary issues obliquely.

The Walk (1992)

Asimov’s – December 1992

A man is forced at gunpoint to inhale a neural implant that will alter his viewpoint and beliefs.

The Cutie (1989)

Interzone #29 – May 1989

A rather poignant story set in a world where one can buy a designer baby implanted with a suicide gene that kicks in at four years old.

Into Darkness (1992)

Asimov’s – January 1992

Reminiscent of Budrys’ ‘Rogue Moon’, this is an excerpt from the life of a specialised rescue worker, one who runs through the rando wormholes that have appeared to plague the world. One can run through them in one direction when they appear and hope that you can rescue people who have been trapped inside, as one can only go forward. If you try to turn back, you will die. You must carry on to the other end and hope to get out before the wormhole collapses.

Appropriate Love (1991)

Interzone #50 – August 1991

In a future healthcare insurance scenario, a wife has to have her husband’s comatose brain implanted into her body until his clone body has grown to the point where the brain can be replaced. What effect, however, will this have on their relationship?

The Moral Virologist (1990)

Pulphouse #8 – Summer 1990

Egan takes a swipe at the madness of US Right Wing Christianity in a tale of a Christian Virologist who has designed a virus that will kill anyone who has sex with more than one person.

Closer (1992)

Eidolon #9 – Winter 1992

Another story based in the world of the ‘Ndoli Jewel’ where a couple decide to try and see what it is like to be each other.

Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (1992)

Interzone #61 – July 1992

A slightly Ian-Watson-esque story following an event in 2018 when everyone in the world became mentally susceptible to each other’s deepest beliefs. Consequently those who believed similar things joined together and ‘attractor’ wells formed, while those whose beliefs are fairly agnostic – such as the narrator – wander the world in the gaps between, pulled by the various tides of belief.


Flux (Xeelee #03) – Stephen Baxter (1993)

Flux (Xeelee Sequence, #3)

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.


Artifact – Gregory Benford (1985)

Artifact

‘In a 3500-year-old Mycenaean Tomb, an artifact has been unearthed. An incomprehensible object in an impossible place; its age, purpose and origins unknown.
Its substance has scientists baffled. And the miracle it contains does not belong on this Earth.
It is an enigma with no equal in recorded history and its discovery has unleashed a storm of intrigue, theft and espionage that is pushing nations to the brink of war.
It is mankind’s greatest discovery… and worst nightmare.
It may already have obliterated one world. Ours is next.’

Blurb from the 2001 orbit paperback edition.

I find myself being rather ambivalent about Benford novels. Admittedly, the science is as accurate as it possibly could be, and if it does get above some people’s heads, Benford has provided an afterword in which he gives a ‘Quarks for Dummies’ lecture in some of the more important aspects of subatomic particles.
‘Timescape’ is a novel which, although listed in Pringle’s ‘100 Best SF Novels’, is rather dull and lacks pace and background colour.
‘Foundation’s Fear’ suffered from both a lack of characterisation and a sense of disjointedness in that the narrative was attempting to follow both Seldon and a pair of resurrected AI simulations.
‘Artifact’ however, is a very readable if lightweight piece, but does have its faults.
In structure it resembles very much the outline for a film including a short prologue sequence (which in a film would be shown before the main credits) set 3500 years in the past before the next chapter brings us bang up to modern day at the same location.
Claire Anderson is a feisty Boston Irish archaeologist excavating a Mycenaean tomb under the watchful eye of the Greek authorities, while Greece itself is transforming into a One-Party Socialist State.
Kontos, a brutish Greek archaeologist turned politician, is attempting to oust the Americans from the dig. Claire then discovers a strange cube within the tomb, carved from black stone with an amber cone protruding from the forward surface.
Tests on the cube produce curious results. It is, for one thing, radioactive.
Kontos proves to be a lecherous Greek as well as a Socialist. After a final showdown Kontos has the cube packed up, prepared to claim it as his own find. Claire and US mathematician John Bishop return to the tomb and reclaim not only Claire’s notes but the cube, which they feel quite entitled to carry off to the US with them.
Benford makes no attempt to question the moral basis of this. Indeed, it seems implicit within the text that such an act is necessary as the US is the only country capable of examining and learning the secrets of such an object, and the Greeks of course, would only be interested in it for its military capabilities, while the Americans, God Bless them, would be concerned only for the pursuit of science and the artifact’s peaceful applications.
The Greeks attempt to reclaim the artifact, but are thwarted, so they declare war on Turkey instead.
This may seem a flippant over-simplification of Benford’s portrayals, but had he attempted to put some shades of grey into depictions of the two races this would have been a far superior book. The American characters are uniformly honest, decent people while the Greeks are two-dimensional caricatures; corrupt, devious, lecherous and violent.
On a Hollywood level, America (and indeed the UK if one considers Bond movies to be representative of British cinema) often gets away with portraying evil foreign regimes in this cliched way, but one could argue that many recent productions of this type are aware of the ironic nature of their depictions, which border on self-parody, particularly in the case of contemporary Bond movies and Vin Diesel’s ‘XXX’
One expects an author in this day and age, particularly an SF author, to be more aware of the political and social nuances. No regime is truly evil. No democracy is truly good.
Sadly, the whole badly thought out political nonsense tends to detract from the artifact itself, a natural trap for two bound singularities (like two big quarks) one of which has been jarred loose but is returning like a heat-seeking monster to find its twin.
It’s a shame really. If there were less of the political and racial polarisation, this could have been something half decent.


Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)

Ringworld (Ringworld #1)

‘With RINGWORLD, Larry Niven reaches full maturity as a writer of some of the most vivid and inventive science fiction the past decade has seen.

Niven has steadily constructed a logical and coherent piece of space all his own in a series of short stories of which Neutron Star, a Hugo Award Winner, was one.

Now, in RINGWORLD, he carries out the promise of the earlier structure and takes his familiar characters, the puppeteers, to a fantastically conceived scientifically logical world – the Ringworld of his title – a towering and beautiful concept. ‘

Blurb to the 1970 Ballantine Paperback Edition

Ringworld is undoubtedly a Landmark Science Fiction novel, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and possibly the definitive Big Dumb Object novel.
It’s a work which manages to succeed both as an ideas novel and as one of action adventure.
Niven is one of those SF authors who chooses to set the majority of his novels in the same fictional universe, in his case in a spherical region of space approximately seventy light years in diameter which is known to his readers as ‘Known Space’.
This one-author milieu is a common practice and works for both authors and readers since although the novels do not have to be directly linked, and may be set hundreds or thousands of years apart, the background is a familiar one for readers and allows authors to explore and develop aspects of already established elements.
‘Known Space’ for Niven had already been explored in short story format, anthology collections of which are available, and in the novels ‘A Gift From Earth’ and ‘The World of Ptaavs’, and so the background was already set for the ambitious ‘Ringworld’.
Louis Wu, a two-hundred year old pilot, kept young by the effects of a longevity drug, is recruited by the alien Nessus, a Pearson’s Puppeteer, thought to be insane by the standards of his ‘cowardly’ race (a species of two-headed, three legged highly intelligent creatures, driven by a racial urge of self-protection and avoidance of danger) to investigate an artefact surrounding a star far outside Known Space.
Along with a Kzin – a ferocious feline species – and Teela Brown – a human woman genetically predisposed to being lucky – Louis and Nessus set off to investigate the anomaly.
The synopsis, put so coldly, does not do justice to what turns out to be a far more complex tale of ingenious scientific extrapolation, alien psychology, hidden motives and sheer sense of wonder.
The artefact itself is a massive ring some ninety million miles in diameter surrounding a star (Niven uses the analogy of a strip of ribbon, fifty feet long, arranged on its edge in a hoop facing a candle at the centre of the circle created). The inner surface of the ring has walls a thousand feet high and contains what is essentially an Earth environment with enough room for three million times the surface of the Earth.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between the various alien races which is very much driven by the psychology of the races involved.
By the time this novel was written we had thankfully moved away from the prevalent idea that humans (usually American humans) were natural candidates if not to rule the galaxy then at least to guide its direction or dictate policy. In EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series for instance, Humanity is the chosen race, and certainly selectively-bred members of it are destined to take over as Custodians of The Galaxy. Niven has no such pretensions here. Humans, although having come out on top in a war with the rather Klingon-esque Kzin, are technologically inferior to other races with whom they have come into contact.
The Puppeteers seem at first to be somewhat comical creatures; small, white-furred, swan-necked, two headed beasts. They are pathologically cautious and seem harmless, but as the novel progresses, Louis and the rest of the crew discover not only their overwhelming technological strength, but their rather disturbing involvement in Earth and Kzin history.
Although altruistic, the Puppeteers will go to any lengths to protect their individual or racial safety, and describing them as ‘cowards’ is, as becomes clear, imposing a human value on an alien psychology. There is a parallel again here with Doc Smith’s Lensman series and Nadrek of Palain VII whose racial psychology was almost exactly that of the Puppeteers in that individual safety was the prime motivation of the Palainian psyche. Nadrek too, was also considered ‘‘mad’’ by members of his own race since he chose to expose himself to unwarranted danger by interaction with alien races.
Again, ‘Ringworld’ is also one of those novels that should have been left as a standalone piece. The sequels, although explaining the origins of the Ringworld, decline in quality as the series progresses. This, taken in isolation however, is a masterwork by a writer at the height of his powers.


Picoverse – Robert A Metzger (2002)

Picoverse

‘In the early twenty-first century, a team of scientists has done the impossible – ripped apart the fabric of space-time and created a brand new universe… one million-millionth the size of our own. Now they’re going to see where it takes them.

PICOVERSE

A big bang of and adventure’

Blurb from the Ace 2003 paperback edition.

Despite a cover filled with the usual plaudits and glowing praise from various quarters, Metzger’s novel of universe creation and alternate worlds ends up being a bit of a mess.
If one could imagine a story by Robert Reed being re-written by Gregory Benford then one might conceivably wind up with this.
Katie McGuire and Jack Preston are working alongside Professor Horst on a device called the Sonomak – a central gizmo into which forty-eight miniature particle accelerators are aimed. Horst is desperate for further funding for his research which is ostensibly aimed at creating nuclear fusion. However, at a demonstration, Horst decides to go for broke and runs all forty-eight accelerators. The resulting chaos, recorded on video, shows not only that the equipment has tied itself into a Carrick knot, but that odd things have happened on a subatomic level.
Horst is then approached by the mysterious Mr Quinn and a woman calling herself Alexandra Mitchell. These two are in fact immortal entities from the universe of The Makers; the beings who created our universe.
Meanwhile, Katie’s seemingly brilliant but autistic son Anthony seems oddly aware of the research experiment, which is an attempt by the immortal agents of the Makers to create a universe of their own and escape their masters.
So where does it all go wrong? The science, it has to be said, cannot be faulted. Several critics have praised the science. Gregory Benford, of all people, has provided a glowing review, from which one can only deduce that either Metzger is one of Benford’s pen-names or he has Benford’s children locked away with some sort of bomb and a digital timer.
The characterisation is very bad, and the motivation of the characters gets either so complex or so basic you want to shoot them.
When a new universe (or a picoverse) is created it is a duplicate of ours, but a lot smaller. Thus, in the first picoverse (where time moves much faster than ours) there was a duplicate Anthony who somehow made himself immortal, and then went insane. He calls himself Alpha.
Alpha then kidnaps the original Anthony and traps him in yet another universe. His mother gets such a maternal rage on that she is willing to kill billions of people to rescue her son. Metzger does not question the morality of this.
In the second picoverse, Alexandra (or one of them. It gets difficult keeping score) enlists the help of Stalin and creates a Soviet Communist world. Metzger thinks that the way to make us see the evils of communism is to show them as a people obsessed with ugly architecture, boots and bombing people. It’s very much a shallow one-sided debate. Like Benford’s woeful ‘Artefact’, one really shouldn’t waste a lot of time criticising the shallowness of this book, and one wouldn’t, had this not been nominated for awards.
Later, our heroes board an asteroid shuttle containing a functioning biosphere peopled by Neanderthals (why is not made clear). Initially the travellers discover that the Neanderthals are vicious and aggressive cannibals, but soon after we are expected to believe that these particular specimens are highly evolved creatures, far superior to homo sapiens. Two of the Neanderthals turn out to be alternate versions of Anthony, one of whom is the genetically re-engineered Alpha.
The denouement (just before which our amnesiac hero Jack remembers that he is an immortal from another universe) is sadly, just as confusing.
To be fair to Metzger, the scientific elements are handled in an exemplary fashion. This could have been an excellent piece of work had not the author attempted to combine the disparate elements of extra-universal superbeings and multiple copies of far too many central characters. This, coupled with the bafflingly swift changes of scene conspires to produce a work which annoys rather than excites.
One can only conclude that Metzger bit off rather more than he could chew. No doubt, in another smaller universe somewhere, a very good version of this novel is a best-seller.


Time: Manifold 1 – Stephen Baxter (1999)

Time

‘THE END OF THE WORLD NEWS

THE HUMAN RACE EXTINCT IN 200 YEARS

This is the Carter Prophecy and it is irrefutable, expressed in the universal language of numbers. But what if there is still a way to survive the catastrophe? When a coded message from the future turns up amid the cosmic background noise of the Big Bang, Reid Malenfant, NASA drop-out turned entrepreneur, diverts his entire space enterprise to find out what it means. The message gives the coordinates of the asteroid Cruithne, Earth’s remote second Moon – nobody knows how it got there. Soon Malenfant, his ex-wife Emma, a super-intelligent child and a disturbed mathematical genius are on their way to Cruithne. What is discovered there is nothing less than a revelation: the secret reason for our existence visible at last beneath the rippled surface of Time’s river. Can this knowledge save the human race?’

Blurb from the 2000 Voyager paperback edition.

Baxter belongs to the Greg Bear school of Big Science SF and here take us on a mind-expanding journey to the end of the Universe, encompassing such concepts along the way as genetic engineering, alternate universes, Homo Superior and the ultimate destiny of Humanity.
Reid Malenfant is a maverick ex-NASA businessman who is using his power and political contacts to launch a mission to mine the asteroids. In this multi-voice narrative, Malenfant’s is the lead vocal, but we also hear from his ex-wife, PA and general dogsbody, Emma Stoney and a multitude of other players and voices off.
One of Malenfant’s innovations is to use a genetically-enhanced squid as pilot for his scheme. The squid, Sheena 5, has had her intelligence increased artificially.
Interestingly, Baxter published an alternate existence of Sheena as a short story which be found in ‘Year’s Best SF 6 – David G Hartwell (Ed) (2000)’.
Malenfants’ plans are changed when he meets Cornelius Taine, a man on the knife edge between genius and madness, who cites to him the Carter Catastrophe Theory, a philosophical argument of logic which suggests that the human race has only 200 more years before its destruction. Taine postulates that future humanity may be trying to signal us, and indeed, a signal is discovered given the location of Cruithne, Earth’s second ‘moon’ where a vast blue disc is discovered, a portal to the future, or to other universes.
At the same time a generation of super-intelligent children are growing up, and are treated with fear and hostility.
As the world begins to spiral into panic and escalating crises, Malenfant launches his ship and sets off for Cruithne.
There are echoes of Benford’s ‘Timescape’ and Clarke’s ‘Childhood’s End’ and ‘2001’, although the novel is entirely pure Baxter. Taine is used as a device to explain to Malenfant (and therefore the reading audience) the complex scientific bits.
Intelligently written, it is based according to Baxter’s afterword, on contemporary scientific theories of the time, including the intriguing concept of ‘vacuum decay’ which I don’t intend to explain here since that was a little beyond my comprehension.
It’s a novel rich with ideas, and some stunning beautifully written scenes where some of the protagonists are witnessing the slow death of our universe.


Quarantine – Greg Egan (1992)

Quarantine

At the very hard edge of hard SF’s furthest boundary is Greg Egan. One could describe Egan as one who writes fiction for scientists to read. This should not deter anyone else from reading his work though.
The premise here is that (as in Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘Spin’) an impenetrable barrier has been thrown around the Solar System, blotting out the stars.
Nik Stavrianos is an ex-cop private detective in a near future Australia where many residents have been gene-sequenced to produce melanonin and are therefore now black. He left the service when an apocalypse cult (The Children of The Abyss) killed his wife but he keeps her within his consciousness as a virtual recording to occasionally spend time with him.
Nik’s latest case is to find a catatonic woman who somehow escaped three times from a high-security nursing home. The third time, so Nik discovers, she was kidnapped and taken to New Hong Kong. Nik’s investigations lead him further than he would have imagined, into a company where the quantum nature of reality is being discovered and explored.
The lead character’s profession and backstory immediately give the novel a noir feel. It’s a subtle touch.
Undeniably the science seems faultless if at times a little impenetrable, but having said that, fascinating. Heisenberg, Schrodinger’s Cat and the infinite multi-parallel universe come together to connect the woman’s disappearance with the mysterious barrier surrounding the solar system. Amazing brain-workout stuff.