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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 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.
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 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 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?