Sunday, April 29, 2012
Reading List: Manifold: Time
- Baxter, Stephen. Manifold: Time. New York: Del Rey, 2000. ISBN 978-0-345-43076-2.
- One claim frequently made by detractors of “hard” (scientifically realistic) science fiction is that the technical details crowd out character development and plot. While this may be the case for some exemplars of the genre, this magnificent novel, diamondoid in its science, is as compelling a page-turner as any thriller I've read in years, and is populated with characters who are simultaneously several sigma eccentric yet believable, who discover profound truths about themselves and each other as the story progresses. How hard the science? Well, this is a story in which quantum gravity, closed timelike curves, the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, strange matter, the bizarre asteroid 3753 Cruithne, cosmological natural selection, the doomsday argument, Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory, entrepreneurial asteroid mining, vacuum decay, the long-term prospects for intelligent life in an expanding universe, and sentient, genetically-modified cephalopods all play a part, with the underlying science pretty much correct, at least as far as we understand these sometimes murky areas. The novel, which was originally published in 2000, takes place in 2010 and subsequent years. NASA's human spaceflight program is grounded, and billionaire Reid Malenfant is ready to mount his own space program based on hand-me-down Shuttle hardware used to build a Big Dumb Booster with the capability to conduct an asteroid prospecting and proof-of-concept mining mission with a single launch from the private spaceport he has built in the Mojave desert. Naturally, NASA and the rest of the U.S. government is doing everything they can to obstruct him. Cornelius Taine, of the mysterious and reputedly flaky Eschatology, Inc., one of Malenfant's financial backers, comes to him with what may be evidence of “downstreamers”—intelligent beings in the distant future—attempting to communicate with humans in the present. Malenfant (who is given to such) veers off onto a tangent and re-purposes his asteroid mission to search for evidence of contact from the future. Meanwhile, the Earth is going progressively insane. Super-intelligent children are being born at random all around the world, able to intuitively solve problems which have defied researchers for centuries, and for some reason obsessed with the image of a blue disc. Fear of the “Carter catastrophe”, which predicts, based upon the Copernican principle and Bayesian inference, that human civilisation is likely to end in around 200 years, has uncorked all kinds of craziness ranging from apathy, hedonism, denial, suicide cults, religious revivals, and wars aimed at settling old scores before the clock runs out. Ultimately, the only way to falsify the doomsday argument is to demonstrate that humans did survive well into the future beyond it, and Malenfant's renegade mission becomes the focus of global attention, with all players attempting to spin its results, whatever they may be, in their own interest. This is a story which stretches from the present day to a future so remote and foreign to anything in our own experience that it is almost incomprehensible to us (and the characters through which we experience it) and across a potentially infinite landscape of parallel universes, in which intelligence is not an epiphenomenon emergent from the mindless interactions of particles and fields, but rather a central player in the unfolding of the cosmos. Perhaps the ultimate destiny of our species is to be eschatological engineers. That is, unless the squid get there first. Here you will experience the sense of wonder of the very best science fiction of past golden ages before everything became dark, claustrophobic, and inward-looking—highly recommended.
Posted at April 29, 2012 20:47