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Future Dilemmas

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, July 1998)
Stephen Baxter
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Stephen M. Baxter sold his first SF story, ''The Xeelee Flower'', to Interzone in 1987, and first novel Raft (beginning of the four-book ''Xeelee'' sequence) in 1991, followed by Timelike Infinity (1992), Flux (1993), and Ring (1994). His other novels are ''steampunk'' book Anti-Ice (1993), The Time Ships (an ''authorized'' sequel to Wells's The Time Machine, 1995), Voyage (1996), Titan (1997), and Moonseed (1998). His shorter fiction has been gathered in the collections Vacuum Diagrams (1997) and Traces (1998). His new project is the forthcoming trio of ''Manifold'' books, works which are ''connected'' but not a series: The Fate Machine, Saddle Point, and Red Moon.

Baxter won a Writers of the Future prize in 1989, and received the John W. Campbell Award for The Time Ships in 1996.

''The 'Xeelee' sequence kind of drew itself to a close. I did what everybody says you do with a series like that: peg myself into a corner. It was really putting together the collection, Vacuum Diagrams, that did it. The four novels did bring the narrative story of the universe to a close, but you're looking at five million years, and you have plenty of scope for short stories, incidents. So I put together the collection, and I did 'The Soliton Star' as a story. I intended it as a branching story to link together the episodes in Vacuum Diagrams, but found it so difficult, having to research these old stories from five years ago I've never really kept detailed notes, as I hear Peter Hamilton does with his 'Dysfunction' series.

''So I deliberately started a new story series, the 'Saddle Point' series. It will end up as a book. I did three stories and sent them to SF Age, and they ran them together. They could have been published separately; they were meant to be standalone, really. But after that, I had to write the other stories in groups. I've got a plot for seven big chunks like that, which will make the spine of the book, and then a few incidents scattered around it. And also a novel to go with it, but I'm not sure it's smaller-scale, in a way. It's the near future. We go out to the edge of the solar system to meet the aliens who are coming in through teleport gateways kind of a cross between the Xeelee universe, but with races you can communicate with and trade with and do battle with, and one with rather more realism.

''My newest novel is called Moonseed, and again it's derived partly from my recent concerns: near-future space travel, and so forth. I wanted to do a big book about the moon, because I visited the moon briefly in Voyage, and there was a lot of material from the astronauts. This is, after all, another world that humans have visited, so I wanted to go back there and really go into the experience of life on the moon, the small details a short visit, but one that would really go into the minute-to-minute experience.

''After Titan, which is a pretty heavy book in terms of politics and stuff the world gets destroyed as a subplot, after all! and Voyage, another heavy book, I wanted to do a thriller. So Moonseed is a threat-to-the-world thriller, in which the threat comes from the moon, attacks the Earth specifically Scotland, the old volcano in Edinburgh revived, and making a big mess of everything. But the secret is on the moon, so you have to scramble the moon mission, if you're going to try to find the solution. Those two things together make Moonseed a thriller. I think it will be an easier read, more like an airport novel than Titan was.

''Moonseed is, in part, another response to Red Mars, and the terraforming debate, because they try to terraform the moon, and you have to say the moon, in its way, is a beautiful world at least some of the astronauts who went there thought so. So I have a geologist there who's instantly in love with the moon. He understands its formation, and the kind of fairy castle of dust structure which has taken billions of years to form, and so forth, but he can't even touch it without its all coming apart. If you terraform it, obviously that's all going to be destroyed. But to have a twin world in the sky, the blue moon or green moon there, with the sun glinting off the ocean, would be fantastic!

''After Moonseed, I want to get back to the kind of Arthur Clarke stuff again transcendent. The next project, the provisional title is The Fate Machine. It's my take on the far future of the universe. All this Frank Tipler stuff.... I don't believe it at all. The theology.... I've got a Catholic education, and my theology at the age of ten was more sophisticated than the kind of thing you get in Tipler. The idea that we'll all be recreated as we are now it makes no sense.

''With The Fate Machine, I haven't quite figured out how it's going to be. Maybe more like Childhood's End, as a reference point, where you have the opening to the far future and the destiny of man, but really told basically in the present or the near-future, through the impact on people. I reread Childhood's End recently great book. A family losing their child to the stars terrific! It's almost like an extended short story, very small-scale but with great depth. So that's what I'm going for next, I think.

''Looking back, things do change, in terms of influences. When I was young, I was influenced by the greats of the past, Wells and Clarke. When I was kind of cutting my teeth, writing a lot of stories and finally selling stories in the '80s, it was the people who were around at the time, the dominant figures: Benford and Bear in hard SF. And now, my contemporaries, roughly: Paul McAuley, Peter Hamilton, Greg Egan. And I've met everybody else who's still alive, probably not Egan, but Clarke and Benford, and Bear I've become quite friendly with.

''With people like Bear and Benford, McAuley and Robinson, who are working off the same material as I'm working from the new understanding of the planets, and so forth, the new understanding of cosmology (which is maybe more philosophy than science, because it's untestable), we're all coming from the same place. And you do have this dialogue, really, a conversation. We're all pitching in from different points of view, with different things to say.

''I've got a kind of cynical view I like to think, a realistic view of human nature. I think we are flawed. We're a flawed, irrational species. Stan shows some of that. But I've never bought any utopia I've ever read, no matter what, even Clarke's utopias, where we suddenly become wise enough to do things better. I just can't see any sign of that in the human race! I think Clarke falls into the Wells trap: a shock happens, and suddenly we all become wise. Like the meteoroid hits the Earth in Rendezvous with Rama, and yes of course, we must move to a better way of working! Wells used to do the same thing the comet hits the Earth....

''Realistically, I think we're alone. In science fiction with alien mentors, maybe we're looking for the same protective forces out there as we used to find in religion, the same comfort. My personal reason for believing we're alone, in terms of intelligence, is just because we'd see them, because it would only take ten million years to colonize the galaxy, and there's been time to do that many times over. You'd see the debris, even. But there seems to be nothing out there that isn't explicable by just the unraveling of the physical forces. And maybe the unlikeliness of a planet like Earth being in exactly the right place, with the right kind of energy flows, liquid water, would make it pretty rare.

''But the idea that we are alone is absolutely chilling. It's like thinking about death, really, and it's got the same awful finality, the finality of eternity. It makes you wake up in the middle of the night with shivers. I do that, at three in the morning, and my wife says, 'Thinking about death again?' I say, 'No. We're alone in the universe!'''

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