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Exultant: Destiny's Children 2
Stephen Baxter
Gollancz hardcover £12.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Stephen Baxter is seen as one of the leading lights of 'hard SF' and is now one of the great luminaries of British science fiction. He was also my point of entry for serious sci-fi and his speculations on physics and the nature of the universe motivated me to embark upon a related course of study. With these facts in mind, I was very much looking forward to Baxter's return to his old stomping grounds, the Xeelee cycle, which characterised much of his early work.

"Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them" Olaf Stapledon once wrote, and nowhere is this thought about the ultimate insignificance of human existence better portrayed than in the work of Baxter. Many of his books hint at the human race going out and conquering the galaxy only for them all to die in the long slow death of the universe, perhaps hanging on to life as genetically engineered microbes huddled on the surface of a star. This often made Baxter's works quite depressing and leaving you feeling slightly cheated as you missed all the fun. I think that this second part of the Destiny's Children series is meant to address this by showing us human civilisation at its highest point.

Pirius and his crew defeat and capture a Xeelee vessel using time travel to effectively give themselves infinite computing power and thereby the ability to outthink the immeasurably superior Xeelee. However, when they travel back in time to tell their superiors what happened (a common occurrence in this war) they are put on trial for failing to fight to the death in accordance with the dehumanising demands of the philosophies known as the Doctrine, which has bound human society together for 20,000 years and has seen them push the Xeelee back to the black hole at the centre of the galaxy while humanity settles the rest of it. Nilis is a commissioner (and a historian, philosopher, bureaucrat, politician, scientist and project manager) and while his attempts to defend the crew and their past selves fails, he whisks the young Pirius (Pirius Red because he's red-shifted) away to help develop the discoveries of the older Pirius into a way of beating the Xeelee once and for all. This book is the story of what new weapons Nilis and his team develop and the climactic attack on the black hole at the centre of the galaxy.

Exultant is fatally flawed. Its single greatest flaw is a lack of attention to detail that while completely uncharacteristic of Baxter often smacks of laziness. The plotting is lazy, the writing and characterisation are lazy and even the science is lazy. The plot has three main sections: a hundred or so pages dealing with the set up, a middle bit, and a hundred or so pages dealing with the attack. The first and last hundred pages work well and Baxter reveals himself to be a solid writer of action sequences. However, the problem lies with the expanse of text between the first and third acts. The basic dramatic tension in the book is Nilis' desire to create a set of weapons that will definitively win the war for the humans but each new weapon system brings waves of resistance from the various organisations that form the human coalition. Baxter tries to convey a sclerotic and ossified bureaucracy (indeed, he draws parallels between the war with the Xeelee and the First World War), whose adherence to the Doctrines have turned engineers into museum curators and have effectively ended scientific research. However, Baxter has innumerable exceptions to these rules. Old enemies are kept alive because they are useful, heretical cults are allowed to flourish because they are useful, coalescent societies are allowed to exist because they are useful. Even Nilis is kept around because he, usefully, doubled food production by sitting in a library and unearthing old technology. So the bureaucracy is not ossified at all, it is hypocritical in that it adheres to Doctrine except when it's useful. This is the central flaw in the plot of this book because it makes every single bureaucratic wrangle Nilis and his team get into completely and utterly arbitrary. Why are all these exceptions tolerated while Nilis' new weapons are not? At one point, the commander of the human forces that comprise hundreds of millions of vat-bred humans - born only to fight and die - tells Nilis he can't possibly spare 20 ships.

It's possible that it was Baxter's intent to put across a conflicted and incoherent society but not enough time or effort was put into exploring the nature of the society the characters inhabit. Because we don't understand why the society resists the protagonists it's difficult to understand why things happen and even more difficult to enjoy the heroes overcoming these challenges, particularly when methods used to overcome these bureaucratic problems include heroic and epic things like complaining to a bureaucrat's superior and reading a book about management. The fact that the new weapon has four component parts and that the process of pitching the idea, overcoming scientific hurdles and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles is repeated no less than four times makes the book seem frustratingly and irritatingly repetitive. Baxter has a cast of characters which he spends some time developing, ideally such sections would make the repetitiveness of the bureaucracy fly by as even if the main plot arc is stunted, the character arcs should keep us interested. Unfortunately though, this is not the case.

Film is a visual as much as verbal medium. As a result, directors often use visual clues to say things about their characters that they can't be bothered to explain or to show. Many of the tricks are enjoyable for filmmakers such as having your baddie deliver the best lines in the film in a cut glass RADA accent (hence the proliferation of English actors getting evil parts). Literature is ultimately a verbal medium so writers are usually forced to show how evil characters are or have people stand around discussing how evil they are. These can also be amusing and Baxter seems to have found a trick that manages to be overused and offensive at the same time and this is that fat people are invariably corrupt. A bureaucrat that is particularly loathsome has grease drip from his chin as he eats during meetings, he has rolls of fat and rivulets of sweat run down his face. This is lazy characterisation and it is also offensive. Baxter's a better writer than this and the sooner he gets over his fixation with writing fleshy descriptive prose the better. Unfortunately for us, the characterisation in this book rarely improves beyond the two-dimensional. We never gain any real insight into the characters beyond glib descriptions informing us that Pirius is having a hard time adapting to life as an individual or Pirius is missing his girlfriend or Pirius is cynical or Pirius has a breakdown because of his military training (a breakdown that doesn't afflict anyone else with military training when confronted with the same stimulus). Again, one feels as if the character development has been rushed and that instead of showing and explaining how characters are changed by the events in the book, Baxter tells us that a character has changed because of what has happened in this book. Now, at this point you might well accuse me of being unfair. Surely one doesn't read Baxter for the plot and characters but for the big 'hard SF' ideas he deals with? Well they're not particularly brilliant either to tell you the truth.

The main problem with the ideas in this book is that they're not really all that new. Not only have most of them been explored elsewhere but they've been explored elsewhere in Baxter's work! Much of the book serves as a recap of the known history of the Xeelee cycle such as the Earth being conquered, black hole-based technology, dark matter aliens, everything we know about the Xeelee, the Silver Ghosts, GUT drives´┐Ż the list goes on. At one point, it feels as if Baxter's going through his old ideas one chapter at a time. New ideas that are introduced appear sketchy and un-rigorous, such as the shielding system based upon flying around in a pocket universe. Baxter suggests that this protects the ships from harm and prevents the Xeelee from travelling back in time and informing themselves of the new technology. The only reasons we're given for why this should be the case are that if you're in another universe you've severed all causal links with this universe, but if that's true then how can you fly around in this universe? Surely you've got some kind of propellant? At the very least in order for the mission to be a success the ship inside the pocket universe has to interact with our universe in some way! Even the idea of a war fought using time travel is improperly explored as people who do make it back to inform the humans of any tactical changes made by the Xeelee are punished and when the humans succeed in their attack on the black hole at the centre of the galaxy the Xeelee all escape but for some reason don't instantly travel back in time in order to erase the attack. While reading this book I actually wondered if I'd suddenly become more intelligent or knowledgeable about physics since last reading Baxter but then I remembered that the book I'd read before Exultant was Coalescent (Destiny's Children 1), so clearly it was not me who had become more intelligent but rather Baxter's ideas which had become less so.

If I am harsh in my judgements of Baxter it is because he not only has a track record of writing better and more intelligent books than this but because he's written so many of them. I am giving this book two stars out of five because the set up is great fun and it's nice to see the Xeelee again, but this book seems like a cobbled together collection of old ideas held together by a weak plot and even weaker characters. Not only is this book nowhere near as good as the first book in the Destiny's Children series but apart from a few references to the ideas in that book it has absolutely nothing at all to do with it. I am actually hoping that this book is intentionally a grand tour of Baxter's human history and that the plot of this series will fall into place in the third book, but this would not excuse this book being far below the standards that we're used to from Baxter.

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