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4.0 out of 5 stars
Xeelee: An Omnibus: Raft, Timelike Infinity, Flux, Ring
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Xeelee omnibus

This is a long review covering four novels from Stephen Baxter's Xeelee sequence, so the short version goes thus

It is hard SF with some great ideas in it
It deals with things on the grandest possible scale
The story telling and characterisation are somewhat on the mediocre, repetitive side
Of the four novels here, Timelike Infinity is the strongest, followed by Ring and Flux, with Raft bringing up the rear

As a whole, the collection had me thinking of another subdivision within SF, that of SCIENCE fiction. Odd? Well there is science fiction which verges towards fantasy, Frank Herbert's Dune, for example. Then, much of what we call SF is really, when we think of it, Technology Fiction, it is about future use of technology, most of cyberpunk, and much "hard SF" and space opera would appear in this bucket. Stephen Baxter's writing is much more science based, playing with and extrapolating from basic laws of science. At its least successful, this means that sometimes sections of these novels read a bit like an A level physics lesson, or the first year of an undergraduate maths course. The first story here has a character working out the periodicity of a pendulum. At its most successful it means he comes up with some genuinely original ideas; an artificial civilisation established in the crust of a neutron star?

There are common themes which appear in these novels, in both Raft and in Flux the central character starts as a humble outsider and develops to gain acceptance by society. This is perhaps suggestive of something in the author's own view of himself.

These are also stories rooted in a British liberal tradition, Baxter sympathises with those in the lower strata of society, economically and/or politically oppressed, but is also dubious about the benefits of revolution and the motives of its leaders.

Finally, in general terms, this is definitely ideas and action driven fiction, it is not character based. Even in the longer novels in the collection, Baxter's cast remain stereotypical and shallow.

Raft

Raft is set in some form of pocket universe where gravity is stronger, and a group of humans have been stranded. Their society has become stratified into those who live on a giant plate, developed from the remains of the original starship, a lower class who work the surrounding mines, and the sinister half mythological Boneys who live deep in the nebula above which the Raft floats.

With its giant flying forests, emphasis on orbital dynamics, and portrait of a society which has lost its scientific edge, Raft owes an enormous debt to Larry Niven's Integral Trees and Smoke Ring.

It is a fairly standard story of a highly intelligent boy, Rees, born into poverty as a miner, but rising through society to lead its escape from a collapsing nebula. On its own, it is probably a three star book. Interestingly, it is not until the third story in the collection, Flux, that there is any hint of how Raft links to the universe of the other stories.

Timelike Infinity

My favourite of the stories here, Timelike Infinity is rooted in the speculative physics of wormholes, singularities, multiverses and time travel. As such it is the closest to traditional Hard SF or Space Opera.

The primary locations are two periods in the future, one where humanity has developed wormhole technology and is a free species expanding into an emergingly hostile universe. In the second, the human race has been subjugated by the Qax, and their living starships, who have virtually outlawed human spaceflight. Into this era, a wormhole from the former time appears and a group of human fanatics dive through it into history to pursue their impossibly ambitious goals.

Back in the original period, Martin Poole, inventor of the wormhole, must understand the aims of the refugees from the future whilst also battling with Qax invaders from even further in the future seeking to prevent humanity's ultimate if inadvertent victory over their kind.

Here Baxter has great fun tying the various timelines into ever more intricate knots, to deliver a thoroughly entertaining and action packed story. If the story has a main weakness it is the infallability of its central character, but that is probably forgivable in a tale with this breadth of ambition, which plays around with the possibilities thrown up by multiverse theories.

All in all a four and a half star yarn.

Flux

Flux is set in the far future from the main story of Timelike Infinity. In setting, Baxter really lets rip, with specially engineered, microscopic humans living in the mantle of a neutron star. It would be fascinating to know the physics from he has extrapolated his tale.

While the setting is exotic and original, the story and characters are less so. The basic structure is along very much the same lines as Raft. Dura is born into a nomadic society, (with echoes of native American philosophy) which is threatened by electromagnetic instabilities in the star. She and her brother Farr become separated from their grouping and end up travelling to the more advanced city, where like Rees in the first novel, she plays an important role in the saving of the world. The structure at the level above the story is also very similar, Baxter drops the reader into an unfamiliar environment, at first it is all a bit disorienting, but there are enough hints to keep one going, then some way into the novel Basil Exposition walks in and the plot stops for a while so we can be told what is really going on.

The characters we meet are the disaffected teenager, the grizzled old hand who overcomes his cynicism for the greater good, the sadistic supervisor in the dangerous job, the gentle friendly giant, etc etc.

There are some good action sequences, the denouement with the micro humans operating on a macro scale is quite fun, and we learn more about human - xeelee interaction, but this is probably only a three and a half star work.

Ring

Ring brings together much of what is contained in the earlier novels, in terms of story threads, but also in terms of strengths, weaknesses and style. It is closest to being a sequel to Timelike Infinity, but on the way it hooks into both Raft and Flux. How the humans of Raft got into a pocket universe is clarified, and there is more "in star action" as a virtual woman is lowered into the sun.

The basic plot centres around information gathered from events at the end of Timelike Infinity, which indicated an unexpectedly early death for our sun. A shadowy organisation, a sort of "New Space Order" launches two missions to find out what has happened/is going to happen, one the aforementioned solar explorer, the other a generational starship using relativistic effects to travel 5 million years into the future. On the way, there is more interaction with Xeelee technology, we learn about their true enemies, the mysterious photino birds (its difficult not to picture them as being angry) and see the ultimate fate of the universe. So, once more there is some good fun with the science and technology, we get to fly around in a Xeelee nightfighter, but I really lost sympathy with it when things went wrong on the giant starship and for the third time we were confronted with regressive society struggling for survival.

It was also while reading Ring that it dawned on me that, as hyper intelligent uber-races go, Baxter's Xeelee are a bit rubbish. They have all this fabulous technology, but seem totally incapable of any form of interaction and in the end are brought down by an inter-stellar pest infestation.

As a rather cruel conclusion, this collection has a rather depressing constant air of decay, the super intelligent aliens have issues with interacting with others and a significant number of leading characters have a chip on their shoulder about their origins. Is this perhaps precisely what we could have expected from science fiction written by a mathematician from Liverpool?
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on 21 November 2014
The most advanced science fiction out there, by about 2 orders of magnitude.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 2 March 2015
I purchased this having read the 'Long Earth' series co written with Terry Pratchett. The story's are in places quite readable but at times the story gets lost in long winded passages about theoretical physics, which I am sure underpin the story in some way but to a lay person they are. Dull distraction. You can see Mr Baxters influence in the 'Long' books but you sorely miss Mr Pratchets influence in this collection.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 March 2012
A set of stories covering millions of years, Baxter's ingenuity and use of hard science stretched to its limits of possibility have resulted in a magnificent set of works.

This book was my first purchase from Amazon and almost certainly my last thanks to their continued refusal to release their kindle app for my Blackberry Playbook. Kobo are getting my money now. Who's losing out there Amazon?
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 August 2011
This has some good ideas, far from hum-drum SF, starting with the life time of the universe as the base for the story arc, the individual story's are on the human scale, but only the central characters have any depth but only enough for the plot to work & this is the fault in it for me, as the story is the tail & the concept the dog
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 October 2011
Reminds me of why I started reading sci-fi long long ago. Enjoyable though difficult and depressing at times. Also, switches topics and places a lot without much continuity.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 September 2013
Good values, full of great imaginative ideas and some quite heavy science.
But lacks humour, and the timeline at the back would be better at the front.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This book is actually a series of novels set in a coherent future.

It is, unfortunately, inhabited by a series of very similar and rather boring heroes and villains.

The heroes are all driven scientists (or people who want to be scientists) who can always work everything out. The villains are all power mad people (well, men, the girls don't ever get to do any nasty stuff) who can subvert democracy in a few moments and set themselves up as dictator. They're all interchangeable (goodies for goodies, villains for villains) and you don't really care who wins as long as they'd just stop talking because the dialogue 'sounds' odd and stilted...

It's all a bit doom laden with doomed humanity trying to prevail against impossible odds, and not a lot of jokes.

There is also a huge chunk of exotic physics to absorb for the book's basic premise to be true. Unfortunately it's a version of the universe that got blown away only last week by new research...

I got the impression that the author wanted to show how clever he was to understand all this complex 'what the universe is made of' stuff and didn't really have proper stories to hang it all on.

Worth reading if you have a wet week at the seaside to cope with, but that's about all
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 1 June 2012
Have just finished this as a 'holiday read' and must admit to being preplexed by several aspects of it. Certainly there is some clever and original thinking and one or two of the novels are fun in themselves (Raft and Flux are best) but a great panoramic battle between the XeeLee and humanity it ain't! There is far to much 'aren't l clever knowing about all this quantum(?) physics' and he goes on endlessly describing 'stuff' in enormous detail which is neither necessary nor understandable. And there are odd episodes, for example suddenly we have gratuitous and exruciatingly described sex between two characters in Flux which is does nothing for the plot or the characters! I think what finally killed it off for me was the final novel with the Arc Ship Great Northern's passengers suddenly reverting to 'Amazons v Soviets' during their 1000 year voyage, despite psychologists and technology stuffed in the ship to make sure they remember who (and why) they are. Even we remember what was going on 1000 years ago, without the technology.
Inconvenient plot 'jumps' are glossed over (usually with more quantum physics)and it all seems depressingly likely to end in tears for humanity and thumbs up for the photino birds! And l could go on about the silly virtual woman in the sun too!
That said, l got into one or two of the plots and found them engaging (especially when l forgot about the XeeLee context). My advice is read as separate books and forget the last one unless your hooked!
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 8 April 2013
Well, I managed the first part Okay but then it started to get a bit heavy going. I will return to it later on.
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