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A conscious attempt to copy a bad book, done well
on 1 June 2011
A year ago I reviewed First and Last Men, by Olaf Stapledon and was not particularly complimentary about it. This book is similar in concept. Baxter himself calls Stapledon's dreadful book "science fiction's greatest ascent", so it's not particularly surprising that he decided to emulate it and write something similarly epic. However, he does a rather better job. Baxter has written a few novels in his "Xeelee Sequence" series, and this is a collection of short stories in the same universe. They are framed by an overarching short meta-story, and are presented in a sequence spanning several million years, during which we see humanity in many different forms, some evolved, some engineered, but all still mentally and emotionally human. Stapledon's book barely has individual characters at all, but just about all of Baxter's stories concentrate on an individual or a handful of people. As a result, we don't learn so much about the history of his universe, but we can at least connect with those living in it. However, although the characters are clearly people (unlike Stapledon's which are mere shadows projected onto a screen) we don't feel for them, and they could do with more development, even within the confines of short stories.
My other criticism is that there's perhaps just a little bit too much time spent "explaining" the various technologies. This will be offputting for those unfamiliar with modern science, who won't understand, and I'm sure it will date very badly.
On the whole, I think I recommend this book, at least for those who are into "hard science fiction".