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Megalomaniac Space Opera
on 22 June 2006
Exultant has none of the same characters as Coalescent and it does not continue the story either. So in what way exactly is this book a sequel? Well, it's thematic, and the theme is, approximately, the family. In Coalescent Baxter examined a society in which everyone belongs to the same family; now, in Exultant, he looks at a society in which there is no such thing as the family.
And what an unpleasant society it is. Baxter presents us with a hideous centrally-planned dystopia reminiscent of a cross between Stalinism and ancient Egypt, which manufactures billions of human beings ex-utero deliberately for use as cannon fodder in a galactic war that has been going on for so long that the ruling bureaucracy now has a vested interest in not winning it. His protagonists are instances of such human beings: teenage conscripts (that word barely touches the wretchedness of their condition) who have been created to be nothing more than biological components of a vast military machine. Their lives are expendable, utterly worthless, until one of them makes an innovative discovery...
This is space opera on a megalomaniac scale. It's also Baxter's first stab at military sci-fi. The reader inevitably recalls Starship Troopers, but Baxter has rummaged around widely, chucking the Western Front, the Dambusters and even Star Wars into the mix too, and no doubt many others I missed. It works well, and Baxter is certainly not interested in mocking the military virtues that are all his deracinated young heroes have to sustain them. Nor, intriguingly, is he interested in mocking the (illegal) religious beliefs that the conscripts adhere to. Religion is often overlooked by science fiction writers, if not actively derided, but Baxter is prepared the treat the matter seriously; he even has a couple of mischievous (and thought-provoking) points to score in the current `Intelligent Design' debate - although I couldn't find any reference to his intriguing `Lithium anomaly' when I Googled.it. Hmmm.
Exultant is a war story, and its lead characters are soldiers, but I imagine that it is the enemy that will hold the attention of most Baxter fans, for there can be no doubt that the enigmatic Xeelee are a favourite of Baxter's readership. To date they've always been kept off-screen, invisible and unknowable; now, in Exultant, we get a full dissertation on their origins and purposes. It's astonishing, fascinating, mind-bending stuff that proves that Baxter has lost none of his ability to `overwhelm you with traditional sf "sense of wonder" until your jaw drops.' Pure Baxter.