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From Xeelee Flower To Transcendence:
profile by Duncan Lawie
Stephen Baxter's origins fit our ideals of both an SF fan and an SF writer. As a child
of the 1960s, he was turned on to SF by Gerry Anderson's TV shows. He grew up to study
mathematics at Cambridge and completed a PhD in aeronautical engineering, before moving
into teaching and industry. As a chartered engineer with an abiding interest in space,
Baxter applied to join Mir as guest cosmonaut in 1989/90. Having the right kind of
mathematics and engineering background helped, but the lack of a second language was
to prove insurmountable. Instead, he was taken up by Interzone in its drive for
a new radical hard-SF in the late 1980s.
The first story Baxter ever sold was The Xeelee Flower. This simple thread lead into the labyrinth of the Xeelee universe, a future-history that first took shape in Baxter's short story writing (subsequently gathered into Vacuum Diagrams, 1997). Another early piece was the short story that expanded into Baxter's first novel, Raft (1991). The apparently bizarre environment in which the book is set is shown, gradually, to have a sound scientific basis. From the book itself, it isn't obvious that Raft is part of the original Xeelee sequence. It is a wholly independent novel and is still a great starting point for diving into Baxter. The larger setting in which this jewel exists only becomes apparent through further reading. Baxter's next novel, Timelike Infinity (1992), sets out the next few thousand years for our planet and our species, building a platform for the Xeelee sequence as a whole. It also has a solid technical agenda, with time paradox and mega-engineering as central subjects alongside the invasion of Earth and decimation of human culture by alien overlords. Amidst all this we have the unforgettable image of Stonehenge being thrown down a time tunnel to orbit Jupiter. The ending of this book is open rather than closed, the reader can be sure that we are not done with this story.
However, Baxter's next Xeelee book is closer in approach to Raft, though considerably longer. The setting for Flux (1993) is enclosed, dependent on extreme interpretations of physics to exist at all. Within this setting, what makes the protagonists human has little to do with their physical manifestation. They are closer to the Planck scale than our own, but these people are richly imagined characters, amongst Baxter's most well rounded. Towards the end, this novel ties itself in to the Xeelee threat, but it isn't until we reach Ring (1994) that the biggest tale is told. The last of the Xeelee sequence, published seven years and dozens of stories after Baxter began, Ring has a rich heritage to draw on, and an important duty to perform. Its purpose is to give a final shape to the whole of Baxter's future-history. Many of the glancing comments in this volume can be better understood with reference to the collected short stories; even the ring of the title was defined in one of Baxter's earliest stories. The human scale is extremely difficult to maintain when the subject is as big as the life and death of the universe, particularly one in which humanity isn't in control. Baxter could be forgiven for taking the Stapledon line and abandoning character altogether. Instead, he keeps his characters in the foreground, distending their nature, and our understanding of humanness, to hold onto a viewpoint the reader can connect with. The outcome is a future-history that stands up to comparison with the classics of the 1950s, whilst being wholly modern in its methods and concerns.
Having reached the end of the universe, it was time for Baxter to move on. Strictly speaking, he had already been looking sideways whilst writing the Xeelee material, perhaps to provide himself with some lighter relief. Anti-Ice (1993) is a fairly typical example of Victorians-in-space, even if the scientific foundation is carefully grounded. The characters fall out of a conjunction of Kipling and Dickens whilst the McGuffin of the plot is essentially nuclear power for Queen Victoria. The Time Ships (1995) is another Victorian number, but this is the 'official sequel' to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The open ending of the original becomes a hook for a sequel in late 20th century eyes, and Baxter uses the opportunity to take Wells (or at least his traveller) on a tour of recent science, and the many worlds theory. Baxter's interpretation of Wells' recipe is a rich dish, if not always perfectly blended.
Baxter moved on from cod-Victoriana soon enough and his oft-mentioned attempt to become an astronaut aligns neatly with the next phase in his career, his NASA novels. Voyage (1996) is an alternative history of the first manned mission to Mars, taking the moon landings as the kick-off point and holding onto NASA's mission of human exploration of the solar system. Despite being somewhat misty-eyed about the hope that us humans could have made it to Mars in the 1980s, Baxter shows a clear understanding of the politicking and engineering which drives the US Space Agency. This grounding does make the reader wonder how close we came, but the end result is still wish fulfilment for space geeks. Titan (1997) is a thematic sequel, in that NASA and human spaceflight is again the subject. However, this novel is rooted in the arid ground of the 21st century manned space programme. Combining this with a bleak view of the state of the 'States leads to a last-gasp escape from Earth plot. The result is hard engineering fiction, with little hope for soft humanity. Moonseed (1998) sees Baxter intent on destroying the Earth in much closer focus. This time around, humanity might survive the 21st century, even if our planet doesn't. Again, there is a good deal of NASA in the book, and telling technical detail, driving the idea that they are a set. Baxter may have worked through his obsession with the space programme for a while, but NASA would be back in his dreams soon enough.
At the same time as these books came out, Baxter contributed two novels to The Web, a juvenile series published in 1997/8 and set 30 years on. The series as a whole encompassed a dozen juveniles by an impressive line-up of names in British SF. These are true children's books, with young protagonists and a simpler writing style. Baxter contributed Gulliverzone (1997) and Webcrash (1998), the first in each set of six, setting the stage for the series to follow. The adult reader may find the foreshadowing in the plot excessive, but Baxter's settings show his ever-present attention to detail. The Virtual Beatles show up here, a tic that appears in a variety of Baxter numbers, but some of the other incidental details have dated rapidly. The didactic elements of the story also tend to stand out, but no more so than in such adult novels as Evolution, of which more below.
Our subject's next project was 'Mammoths'. Also intended as a 'juvenile', this is only apparent in the comparative youthfulness of the viewpoint characters. With all the protagonists being mammoths, these books appear to stand a long way from Baxter's usual concerns. In fact, these creatures are shown to have a rich oral culture and to live with the world and within its constraints. In a sense, mammoth society reflects the ideal of the noble savage, including terror and destruction at the hands of the modern human. The construction of the trilogy is an excellent example of Baxter's tendency to pervert the trilogy format. The first book, Silverhair (1999), introduces the idea of mammoths as thinking, communicating creatures that have, by sheer remoteness, survived into our time. What befalls them is largely beyond their conception, and it is only through trying to grasp hold of events as they happen, rather than relying on tradition to provide all the answers, that they can possibly survive. This could, again, be seen as a metaphor for us humans, particularly those in the far north who are seeing unprecedented change, events which their own long traditions of life in a difficult climate cannot prepare them for. The key for the mammoths in Silverhair is that there is a story within their tradition that tells of a great iconoclastic hero; even in breaking with tradition, Silverhair can use the tools of tradition to explain her actions.
The second Mammoth book goes back millennia to the story of Longtusk (2000), facing the end of an Ice Age and, like his distant descendant, the interference of humanity. The tension in this book is in how the great hero, who we know will survive, overcomes the challenges set before him. The third book, Icebones (2001) leaps into the future, to a time when a new race of mammoths has been produced on the plains of a partially terraformed Mars. These mammoths, though as intelligent as their forebears, have no traditions; they are the product of a breeding programme by humans. Nearly domesticated, they are lost when humanity disappears, but Silverhair's daughter is placed amongst them. She is there to explain their own history to the mammoths, to attempt to pull together the remnants of 'her' people and survive in a land more unforgiving than the Arctic tundra. Transferring the action to Mars certainly makes the Mammoth trilogy feel more science fictional, but the activities of invisible humanity in changing the world are not explained, not even comprehensible, to the protagonists. In this, the mammoths are as much at a loss as is humanity in the Xeelee sequence.
The infinitude of the universe, and its scale beside the mere mortal, is common to much of Baxter's work. He is faced with the difficulty of saying something positive in the face of the knowledge that, in the end, we all die. Evolution (2002) is an excellent example of this problem. It is a very hard science novel, wholly purposed with explicating a theory. If there is a hero in this novel, it is the 'selfish gene' that defines mammals. The characters represent steps on the evolutionary path which humanity is walking, and fulfil little other purpose. The scenes are exceedingly well drawn, but do not really draw the reader in, as the vignettes instead build up a view into deep time - glorious but chilly. Evolution is an opportunity to better understand Baxter's thinking, exposing his ideas far more directly than in the rest of his oeuvre, where the plot must be guided by the human scale. It also neatly binds together a number of loose thoughts that underlie both the Mammoth books and the last of the Manifold set.
The Manifold novels were published in the same period as the Mammoths but occupy different universes from each other, as well as from the Mammoths. The manifold of the title enfolds many worlds, with each book principally separated by different solutions to Fermi's Paradox (if there are aliens out there, why aren't they here?). There are two obvious answers to this question, and the first two books each offer a powerfully argued, fecund interpretation of their chosen answer. Time's (1999) idea that we are totally on our own in the universe could result in the bleakest of novels - and on one level it is - but our progeny will come after us, nevertheless. Space (2000) offers a richly populated galaxy, the Solar system filled with relics of previous visits and the sky filling with the next wave. The author has clearly enjoyed plundering SF history for alien types and putting them through the Baxteriser. The result is a wild joy ride, but doesn't leave much more room for us humans. The third Manifold book, Origin (2001) is more about the Manifold itself, or at least the potentialities inherent in the concept of multiple worlds. It suggests that the presence or absence of aliens in the galaxy is almost trivial in comparison with the unexpressed sibling species in our genes. As well as universe-scale questions, each of these novels explore a different version of the life story of Reid Malenfant. The constancy of his desire to go to the moon has significant influence, as does his varying relationship with his wife. Baxter's grasp of the human scale in these books is excellent, giving the huge events more meaningful contrast. The recurrence of the central characters also gives these books a strong core, the continuity of a standard trilogy.
Baxter's next book, Coalescent (2003), appeared, to be a completely new turn, set in the collapse of the Roman Empire and the late 20th century. As ever, the quality of the author's research shows up in the convincing detail of post-occupation Britain and the heart of Rome, whilst he also has the opportunity to use his own experience to describe our start of our 21st century. This part of the novel is in the first person, a very personal narrative as George Poole searches for a sister he did not know he had. The book can be read as a satisfying non-SF novel, but the coda reveals that there is something else going on. The second book of this Destiny's Children trilogy, Exultant (2004), uses a little of the theme of the hive mind, but is, in fact, a full blown Xeelee novel. Baxter has been working his way back towards this for a while, with such items as the Reality Dust (2000), Riding The Rock (2003), and Mayflower II (2004) novellas. It is hardly surprising that he has been tempted back into this setting, as he has a near infinite canvas to work upon. The gritty opening of the novel expands to cover the end of the galaxy-wide struggle between human and Xeelee.
Nevertheless, Transcendent (2005) treats the events of the Exultant generations distantly, in the manner that book did the first. Half the chapters are set half a million years in the future, where out distant descendents still focus down on our age. They want to heal the human race, and struggle with the complexity of such a task, with the concepts of building their own Omega Point or of reconstructing the lives of all who have gone before. Such huge questions are counter pointed by the other half, where the pains of human existence are played out against global crisis as human wrought climate change scarifies the planet. Here, in 2047, Transcendent is a direct sequel to Coalescent, and George Poole's nephew narrates this part of the book. Baxter's vision of a battered Earth in our own lifetimes is focused and believable. The narrator's family relationships are just as painful to observe. It is fascinating to see the author develop the root of his future-history. It is a greater achievement that this story has such impact when it is part of a future-history already known.
As a prolific full-time writer, Baxter has produced far more than a list of novels shows. Almost every book, which has reached novel length, is surrounded by a corona of short stories. There is a companion book to go with the Manifold set and another is projected for Destiny's Children. It is clear that his best way of working into a new setting is by writing himself into it. Baxter never allows the main themes or plot of a novel to depend on a familiarity with this other writing, so it is possible to remain a reader only of his novels. However, the richness of his universes are only truly apparent by reading in depth; often, interesting, minor characters in the novels will have a considerable backstory hidden away in a companion work. Neither are these stories dependent appendages. Each stands alone, to find its own market. Many readers have found their way into Baxter from his short fiction, while others have branched out from the novels.
Baxter's recent work also includes a number of collaborations with Arthur C. Clarke. Typically for Baxter, this began with a couple of short stories, grew to a novel - The Light Of Other Days (2000) - and now to the Time Odyssey trilogy (so far Time's Eye, 2004 and Sunstorm, 2005). Early in his career, Baxter was strap-lined as Clarke's successor, and the pairing of two such SF names looks immediately interesting. The products of the partnership show the creative features of two fascinating thinkers, with hard science and big ideas competing for the spotlight. Unfortunately, plotting and characterisation have been left in the shadows, with story direction and character credibility rather less believable than the conceptual setting. Perhaps Clarke and Baxter's relationship will mature to more rounded work; the shorter collaborations with Eric Brown show Baxter can produce good work in harness with another writer.
Amongst all his fiction, Stephen Baxter has also written a good deal of nonfiction, from his earliest technical work to a regular column in Matrix, as vice-president of the British SF Association. Like his short stories, these can be another venue for the writer to work up what he is trying to share. There are peaks in his writing on H.G. Wells, space exploration and the Fermi Paradox around the times of the relevant novels, for example. Even when there isn't a clear relationship with published fiction, much of what he writes about in nonfiction chimes with his main literary interests. His interest in the SF field itself also shows through, in items such as book reviews, studies of writing science fiction and articles for Foundation. A good portion of his non-fiction is collected in Deep Future and Omegatropic (both 2001). There is also Ages In Chaos (2004), a full-length biography of James Hutton. Baxter doing biography might seem unlikely, but the Hutton in question was a founder of modern geology, and this book traces his life and his theories. With characters from Charles Darwin's grandfather to James Watt, Baxter has a good cast for a tale, whilst the conflict between science and tradition is a natural spine for the plot.
Despite a tally of 20 novels and half a dozen collections, Stephen Baxter may still be approaching the mid-point of his writing career. He is never short of an audience, whether describing Neanderthal lifestyles or the origins of the universe. His professional fiction career is less than two decades old whilst his intense interest in the broad span of science and history sparks off swathes of novels, meticulously researched, wherever the plot may lead him. His fiction is idea-lead in the mould of traditional hard science fiction, evoking a sense of wonder at the universe, but there are few tales of conquering the universe in his oeuvre. Baxter often displays a sense of humanity's own insignificance against such a vast scale - a more typical Baxter hero seeks to understand rather than conquer. Sometimes, the result is intense, driven characters, which can make for unsympathetic leads. Sometimes there is no central character at all. The wonder of time and space is central to his novels; the scale of the universe we live in, how difficult it is to grasp the time between ourselves and the Romans, let alone between here and the death of the Sun, of the universe (admittedly, quite close in some of his work). This sense of scale sometimes overwhelms the sense of wonder and leads to a bleakness, a feeling that the void is very close and, in the end, we all die. This darkness, the temporary nature of each life, informs the core of his best works in a different fashion, leading from the Druz Doctrines' "a brief life burns brightly." When measured against the universe, all our lives are brief, and they can all burn with the power of sentience.
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