Books by Baxter, Stephen

Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long Earth. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-206775-3.
Terry Pratchett is my favourite author of satirical fantasy and Stephen Baxter is near the top of my list of contemporary hard science fiction writers, so I expected this collaboration to be outstanding. It is.

Larry Niven's Ringworld created a breathtakingly large arena for story telling, not spread among the stars but all reachable, at least in principle, just by walking. This novel expands the stage many orders of magnitude beyond that, and creates a universe in which any number of future stories may be told. The basic premise is that the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics literally exists (to be technical, Max Tegmark's Level III parallel universes), and that some humans possess a native ability to step from one universe to the next. The stepper arrives at the same location on Earth, at the same local time (there is apparently a universal clock like that assumed in quantum theory), but on a branch where the history of the Earth has diverged due to contingent events in the past. Adjacent universes tend to be alike, but the further one steps the more they differ from the original, or Datum Earth.

The one huge difference between Datum Earth and all of the others is that, as far as is known, humans evolved only on the Datum. Nobody knows why this is—perhaps there was some event in the chain of causality that produced modern humans which was so improbable it happened only once in what may be an infinite number of parallel Earths.

The ability to step was extremely rare, genetically transmitted, and often discovered only when an individual was in peril and stepped to an adjacent Earth as the ultimate flight response. All of this changed on Step Day, when Willis Linsay, a physicist in Madison, Wisconsin, posted on the Internet plans for a “stepper” which could be assembled from parts readily available from Radio Shack, plus a potato. (Although entirely solid state, it did include a tuber.) A rocker switch marked “WEST — OFF — EAST” was on the top, and when activated moved the holder of the box to an adjacent universe in the specified notional direction.

Suddenly people all over the Earth began cobbling together steppers of their own and departing for adjacent Earths. Since all of these Earths were devoid of humans (apart from those who stepped there from the Datum), they were in a state of nature, including all of those dangerous wild beasts that humans had eradicated from their world of origin. Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper, distinguishes himself by rescuing children from the Madison area who used their steppers and were so bewildered they did not know how to get back.

This brings Joshua to the attention of the shadowy Black Corporation, who recruits him (with a bit of blackmail) to explore the far reaches of the Long Earth: worlds a million or more steps from the Datum. His companion on the voyage is Lobsang, who may or may not have been a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, now instantiated in a distributed computer network, taking on physical forms ranging from a drinks machine, a humanoid, and an airship. As they explore, they encounter hominid species they call “trolls” and “elves”, which they theorise are natural steppers which evolved on the Datum and then migrated outward along the Long Earth without ever developing human-level intelligence (perhaps due to lack of selective pressure, since they could always escape competition by stepping away). But, as Joshua and Lobsang explore the Western frontier, they find a migration of trolls and elves toward the East. What are they fleeing, or what is attracting them in that direction? They also encounter human communities on the frontier, both homesteaders from the Datum and natural steppers who have established themselves on other worlds.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The concept of stepping to adjacent universes is one of those plot devices that, while opening up a huge scope for fiction, also, like the Star Trek transporter, threatens to torpedo drama. If you can escape peril simply by stepping away to another universe, how can characters be placed in difficult circumstances? In Star Trek, there always has to be some reason (“danged pesky polaron particles!”) why the transporter can't be used to beam the away team out of danger. Here, the authors appear to simply ignore the problem. In chapter 30, Joshua is attacked by elves riding giant hogs and barely escapes with his life. But, being a natural stepper, he could simply step away and wait for Lobsang to find him in an adjacent Earth. But he doesn't, and there is no explanation of why he didn't.
Spoilers end here.  

I enjoyed this book immensely, but that may be in part because I've been thinking about multiverse navigation for many years, albeit in a different context and without the potato. This is a somewhat strange superposition of fantasy and hard science fiction (which is what you'd expect, given the authors), and your estimation of it, like any measurement in quantum mechanics, will depend upon the criteria you're measuring. I note that the reviews on Amazon have a strikingly flat distribution in stars assigned—this is rare; usually a book will have a cluster at the top or bottom, or for controversial books a bimodal distribution depending upon the reader's own predisposition. I have no idea if you'll like this book, but I did. And I want a stepper.

November 2012 Permalink

Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long War. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. ISBN 978-0-06-206869-9.
This is the second novel in the authors' series which began with The Long Earth (November 2012). That book, which I enjoyed immensely, created a vast new arena for storytelling: a large, perhaps infinite, number of parallel Earths, all synchronised in time, among which people can “step” with the aid of a simple electronic gizmo (incorporating a potato) whose inventor posted the plans on the Internet on what has since been called Step Day. Some small fraction of the population has always been “natural steppers”—able to move among universes without mechanical assistance, but other than that tiny minority, all of the worlds of the Long Earth beyond our own (called the Datum) are devoid of humans. There are natural stepping humanoids, dubbed “elves” and “trolls”, but none with human-level intelligence.

As this book opens, a generation has passed since Step Day, and the human presence has begun to expand into the vast expanses of the Long Earth. Most worlds are pristine wilderness, with all the dangers to pioneers venturing into places where large predators have never been controlled. Joshua Valienté, whose epic voyage of exploration with Lobsang (who from moment to moment may be a motorcycle repairman, computer network, Tibetan monk, or airship) discovered the wonders of these innumerable worlds in the first book, has settled down to raise a family on a world in the Far West.

Humans being humans, this gift of what amounts of an infinitely larger scope for their history has not been without its drawbacks and conflicts. With the opening of an endless frontier, the restless and creative have decamped from the Datum to seek adventure and fortune free of the crowds and control of their increasingly regimented home world. This has resulted in a drop in innovation and economic hit to the Datum, and for Datum politicians (particularly in the United States, the grabbiest of all jurisdictions) to seek to expand their control (and particularly the ability to loot) to all residents of the so-called “Aegis”—the geographical footprint of its territory across the multitude of worlds. The trolls, who mostly get along with humans and work for them, hear news from across the worlds through their “long call” of scandalous mistreatment of their kind by humans in some places, and now appear to have vanished from many human settlements to parts unknown. A group of worlds in the American Aegis in the distant West have adopted the Valhalla Declaration, asserting their independence from the greedy and intrusive government of the Datum and, in response, the Datum is sending a fleet of stepping airships (or “twains”, named for the Mark Twain of the first novel) to assert its authority over these recalcitrant emigrants. Joshua and Sally Linsay, pioneer explorers, return to the Datum to make their case for the rights of trolls. China mounts an ambitious expedition to the unseen worlds of its footprint in the Far East.

And so it goes, for more than four hundred pages. This really isn't a novel at all, but rather four or five novellas interleaved with one another, where the individual stories barely interact before most of the characters meet at a barbecue in the next to last chapter. When I put down The Long Earth, I concluded that the authors had created a stage in which all kinds of fiction could play out and looked forward to seeing what they'd do with it. What a disappointment! There are a few interesting concepts, such as evolutionary consequences of travel between parallel Earths and technologies which oppressive regimes use to keep their subjects from just stepping away to freedom, but they are few and far between. There is no war! If you're going to title your book The Long War, many readers are going to expect one, and it doesn't happen. I can recall only two laugh-out-loud lines in the entire book, which is hardly what you expect when picking up a book with Terry Pratchett's name on the cover. I shall not be reading the remaining books in the series which, if Amazon reviews are to be believed, go downhill from here.

March 2017 Permalink

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.

April 2012 Permalink

Baxter, Stephen. Moonseed. New York: Harper Voyager, 1998. ISBN 978-0-06-105903-2.
Stephen Baxter is one of the preeminent current practitioners of “hard” science fiction—trying to tell a tale of wonder while getting the details right, or at least plausible. In this novel, a complacent Earth plodding along and seeing its great era of space exploration recede into the past is stunned when, without any warning, Venus explodes, showering the Earth with radiation which seems indicative of processes at grand unification and/or superstring energies. “Venus ponchos” become not just a fashion accessory but a necessity for survival, and Venus shelters an essential addition to basements worldwide.

NASA geologist Henry Meacher, his lunar landing probe having been cancelled due to budget instability, finds himself in Edinburgh, Scotland, part of a project to analyse a sample of what may be lunar bedrock collected from the last Apollo lunar landing mission decades before. To his horror, he discovers that what happened to Venus may have been catalysed by something in the Moon rock, and that it has escaped and begun to propagate in the ancient volcanic vents around Edinburgh. Realising that this is a potential end-of-the-world scenario, he tries to awaken the world to the risk, working through his ex-wife, a NASA astronaut, and argues the answer to the mystery must be sought where it originated, on the Moon.

This is grand scale science fiction—although the main narrative spans only a few years, its consequences stretch decades thereafter and perhaps to eternity. There are layers and layers of deep mystery, and ambiguities which may never be resolved. There are some goofs and quibbles big enough to run a dinosaur-killer impactor through (I'm talking about “harenodynamics”: you'll know what I mean when you get there, but there are others), but still the story works, and I was always eager to pick it back up and find out what happens next. This is the final volume in Baxter's NASA trilogy. I found the first two novels, Voyage and Titan (December 2012), better overall, but if you enjoyed them, you'll almost certainly like this book.

June 2013 Permalink

Baxter, Stephen. Titan. New York: Harper Voyager, 1997. ISBN 978-0-06-105713-7.
This novel begins in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century. Space shuttle Columbia has been lost in a re-entry accident, and a demoralised NASA has decided to wind down the shuttle program, with whatever is to follow, if anything, ill-defined and subject to the whims of politicians. The Huygens probe has landed on Saturn's moon Titan and returned intriguing and enigmatic results which are indicative of a complex chemistry similar, in a way, to the “primordial soup” from which life formed on the ancient Earth. As China approaches economic superpower status, it begins to flex its muscles with a military build-up, an increasingly aggressive posture toward its neighbours in the region, and a human spaceflight program which, while cautious and measured, seems bent on achieving very ambitious goals. In the United States, as the 2008 presidential election approaches, the odds on favourite to prevail is a “thin, jug-eared man of about fifty” (p. 147) with little or no interest in science and technology and an agenda of fundamental transformation of the nation. The younger generation has completely tuned out science, technology, and the space program, and some even advocate a return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (p. 450).

Did I mention that this book was published in 1997?

Astronaut Paula Benacerraf has been promoted and given the mission to shut down the space shuttle program in an orderly fashion, disposing of its assets responsibly. Isaac Rosenberg, a JPL scientist working on the Huygens probe results, pitches a mission which will allow the NASA human spaceflight and solar system exploration programs to go out in a heroic effort rather than be ignominiously consigned to museums as relics of a lost age of greatness. Rosenberg (as he prefers to be addressed), argues that a space shuttle should be sent on its final mission to the only place in the solar system where its stubby wings make any sense: Titan. With an atmosphere about 50% more dense than that of the Earth, it is plausible a space shuttle orbiter could make an aerodynamic entry at Titan. (The profile would be very different, however, since Titan's low gravity [just 0.14 g] would mean that entry velocity would be lower and the scale height of the atmosphere much greater than at Earth.)

Benacerraf recruits a cabal within NASA and begins to put together a mission plan, using existing hardware, components under development for future missions, prototypes from laboratories, and legacy gear liberated from museums and static displays, to see if such an absurdly ambitious mission might be possible. They conclude that, while extraordinarily risky, nothing rules it out. With the alternative a humiliating abandonment of human spaceflight, and a crew willing to risk their lives on a mission which may prove one way (their only hope of survival on Titan being resupply missions and of return to Earth a crew rotation mission, none of which would be funded at the time of their departure), the NASA administrator is persuaded to go for it.

This novel begins as a chronicle of an heroic attempt to expand the human presence in the solar system, at a time when the door seems to be closing on the resources, will, and optimistic view of the future such efforts require. But then, as the story plays out, it becomes larger and larger, finally concluding in a breathtaking vista of the destiny of life in the galaxy, while at the same time, a chronicle of just how gnarly the reality of getting there is likely to be. I don't think I've ever read science fiction which so effectively communicated that the life of pioneers who go to other worlds to stay has a lot more in common with Ernest Shackleton than Neil Armstrong.

If you're a regular reader of these remarks, you'll know I enjoy indulging in nitpicking details in near-future hard science fiction. I'm not going to do that here, not because there aren't some things the author got wrong, but because the story is so enthralling and the characters so compelling that I couldn't care less about the occasional goof. Of course NASA would never send a space shuttle to Titan. Certainly if you worked out the delta-V, consumables requirements, long-term storability of propellants, reliability of systems over such an extended mission, and many other details you'd find it couldn't possibly work. But if these natters made you put the book down, you'd deprive yourself of a masterpiece which is simultaneously depressing in its depiction of human folly and inspiring in the heroism of individual people and the human prospect. This is a thick book: 688 pages in the print edition, and I just devoured it, unable to put it down because I couldn't wait to find out what happens next.

The Kindle edition appears to have been created by scanning a print edition with an optical character recognition program. There are dozens (I noted 49) of the kind of typographical errors one expects from such a process, a few of which I'd expect to have been caught by a spelling checker. I applaud publishers who are bringing out their back-lists in electronic editions, but for a Kindle edition which costs just one U.S. dollar less than the mass market paperback, I believe the reader should be entitled to copy editing comparable to that of a print edition.

December 2012 Permalink