19 January 2007

Locus Reviews Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds

by Gary K. Wolfe

from Locus Magazine, January 2007

Resplendent, Stephen Baxter (Gollancz 0-575-07895-2, £18.99, 550pp, hc) September 2006.

Galactic North, Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz 0-575-07911-8, £10.99, 343, tpb) October 2006. Cover by Chris Moore. [Forthcoming: Ace 0-575-07910-X, $24.95, hc, June 2007]


Here are the two most important things to keep in mind about future histories: they aren't histories, and they aren't about the future. They are, however, wonderfully architectonic Christmas trees on which to hang a variety of tales of the sort that Patrick Parrinder once described as "epic fables" - stories which imply, describe, or contribute to a much vaster meta-narrative which may or may not ever be fully outlined by the author, or ever completed. As such, and as Heinlein and Asimov discovered decades ago, they provide an ingenious means of mediating between two of SF's apparently contradictory imperatives: the desire for neatly plotted adventure stories on a human scale (which was pretty much all the early pulp magazines could handle), and the yearning for vast intractable vistas of space and time - SF's own version of the sublime, rooted in starscapes rather than the landscapes of an earlier generation. The old pulp writers tried to convey this sublimity by simply proclaiming it, hammering us with phrases like "infinite depths of space" (or sometimes "depths of infinite space"), "inconceivable leagues of space", "the infinite void's eternal night" (these are all taken from only a couple of pages of Edmond Hamilton's "The Star Stealers"), but only a few writers tried to cast the far future as a literal universal history. The most famous, of course, was Olaf Stapledon, whose Last and First Men and Star Maker provided a grand enough template for hundreds of tales (it's always surprised me that so few later writers tried to set tales in Stapledon's universe), but he came flat up against the opposite problem: namely, that history is long on plots but short on plot, and that no matter how awe-inspiring the vision, a single chronicle covering millions of years doesn't really satisfy the needs of readers who simply want to know if the engineer can squeeze enough power out of the hyperdrive engines to outrun the onrushing space pirates (a situation which actually shows up in one of the stories in Alastair Reynolds's Galactic North).

As Reynolds discusses cogently in the Afterword to his new collection Galactic North (which was also reprinted as an essay in the November Locus), future history has by now become an integral part of the fabric of SF, and Reynolds cheerfully and with disarming candor catalogues those authors he's borrowed from: Niven, Varley, Sterling, Benford, Swanwick, Joan D. Vinge, M. John Harrison, etc., no doubt with Heinlein and Asimov lurking further in the background. Stephen Baxter, on the other hand, is decidedly more Stapledonian, if not quite Teilhardian, in his career-long sequence of Xeelee stories and novels, to which the latest contribution is Resplendent, a collection of nineteen stories and novellas, one previously unpublished, which is being rather coyly and misleadingly labeled as Destiny's Children Book Four, as though it were some sort of continuation of the series of thematically linked novels Coalescent, Exultant, and Transcendent (all of which get slotted into a timeline at the back of the book, though the timeline itself is adapted from one in his first Xeelee collection, Vacuum Diagrams). Resplendent is "volume four" in about the same sense that Faulkner's collection Go Down Moses is volume two of The Sound and the Fury, since they're set in the same county, but let's let it go.

Baxter's cosmic epic is so ambitious that it's inadequate even to call it a future history; it includes the past as well, beginning with the Big Bang (one episode in Exultant is a full-scale space opera set during the first three seconds of the universe) and extending (at the very end of Vacuum Diagrams) to the collapse of all baryonic matter around 500 million A.D. Its central conflict, between the not-quite-all-powerful time-traveling Xeelee and the dark matter "photino birds", begins billions of years before the birth of the sun and continues until the birds win. But the bulk of Baxter's tales are set during a few key periods of human history, and for the most part they're war stories: following an initial period of expansion in the galaxy through about the 40th century, humanity finds itself successively conquered by a series of alien races named, apparently, by Baxter's parakeet (Squeem, Qax, Xeelee). The first five stories in Resplendent take place during the last years of the Qax occupation (the Squeem appear in a couple of early stories in Vacuum Diagrams) and during the first century of the oppressive human government of the Coalition. This leads to a "third expansion" of human galactic conquest, which leads in turn to war with a self-engineered alien species called Ghosts, who are capable of altering the basic laws of physics in areas which they control. After another five stories detailing this eventually successful war (which runs from the 59th through 76th centuries), humans become the dominant force in the galaxy after the Xeelee, and expand rapidly and ruthlessly for the next couple of millennia; four more stories are set in this period. The final six tales are episodes in the climactic war with the Xeelee, which stretches from about the 205th to the 272nd centuries, with a final coda (the excellent and elegiac new story "The Siege of Earth") vaulting all the way to one million A.D.

But if Baxter's overall framework is undeniably grand, the tales he offers to illustrate moments in this epic are often surprisingly dark and even bitter; his view of human nature, and perhaps of the nature of consciousness itself, is anything but Resplendent. The stories are linked by a sketchy frame tale narrated by an immortal named Luru Parz, whom we meet in the first tale, "Cadre Siblings", as a member of the "Extirpation Directorate", a group of humans collaborating with the invading Qax to wipe out all traces of past Earth civilization and life - cities, books, even fossils - in exchange for immortality. Parz herself develops a conscience, but the Earth ends up nanobotted into a featureless gray plain, a kind of tabula rasa for the rest of the stories. A modest rebirth begins in the second story, "Conurbation 2473", but by now the repressive Coalition government has taken power, and by the third tale (and the first major novella) "Reality Dust", something called the Commission for Historical Truth is obsessed with tracking down the surviving immortal Qax collaborators, some of whom are said to be hiding on Callisto. But the story takes an unusual turn when the Xeelee arrive, apparently concerned about what we might find on Callisto. This turns out to be one of Baxter's boldest SF inventions in the entire book: local bacteria on Callisto, constrained from normal evolution, have instead evolved into other dimensions, into a "configuration space" which contains "all the arrangements of matter there could ever be." Each particle in this space is a particular configuration, and the aggregate is called reality dust. It's a stunning conception, but essentially a sidebar to the evolving history being outlined.

The next stage in this history, the war with the Ghosts, serves two purposes for Baxter: it furthers the developing portrait of humanity as a ruthlessly imperialistic species, and it gives him a chance to write some more traditional space opera tales. The spectacularly reflective ghosts - one imagines animate blobs of liquid mercury - are first encountered by a joyriding teenager who crash lands in a hazardous environment in "Silver Ghost"; another crash landing in a hostile environment (a ghost colony) is at the center of "On the Orion Line", one of the stronger space adventure tales in the book. In "Ghost Wars", involving a quest to track down and kill a brilliant alien tactician called "the Black Ghost" (who has somehow learned human tactics), we learn that the ghosts are in fact comparatively benign, willing to sacrifice victory to avoid the massive destruction that seems to bother the human expansionists not at all. The period of human domination that follows is represented by a series of relatively self-contained tales involving bizarre environments (colonies living on a Xeelee-built shell surrounding a star in "Lakes of Light", space warriors surviving in the icky interior of a wounded organic spaceship called a Spline ship in "Breeding Ground") or classic logistical problems (rescuing a brilliant academician from a flooded world in "The Great Game", perhaps the strongest story in this section).

The stories in the next section, titled "Resplendent", are ironically among the bleakest in the book, illustrating the degree to which human governments are willing to sacrifice their humanity in the service of what is by now a full-scale war with the Xeelee. In "The Chop Line", the paradoxes of waging a time-distorted war come home to a young officer who encounters an older version of herself, accused of disobeying an order during a space battle (despite the fact that her action was in the end heroic). Not only is the younger woman cruelly assigned to prosecute her future self, she learns that she herself will share the punishment for what her older self will do. But the main feature here is "Riding the Rock", easily the most powerful novella in the book, set in an Orwellian totalitarian state of total war enforced by the aforementioned Commission. A young novice commissioner is sent to a distant asteroid where there are rumors of doctrinal impurity, and finds there a society where children are trained to extreme violence and bloody sacrifice, where individual human life is almost meaningless, and where even the slightest hint of compassion is brutally punished. These child soldiers, he's told, are "the logical future of mankind", which is viewed as an endless cycle of war and conquest. The brutal battle scene which follows, recalling World War I trench warfare more than high-tech space opera, is among Baxter's most chilling passages, and the story itself represents a kind of nadir in the history of a civilization that has lost its history.

Eventually the Coalition falls, and is replaced by the Ideocracy, which like the remnants of the Roman Empire vies with various other states and ideologies for control of sectors of the galaxy. A fair amount of this serves as backstory for "Between Worlds", in which a woman holds an entire starship hostage until she's allowed to communicate with her long-lost daughter (whom she believes survives as some kind of organized intelligence inside a black hole) ; the legendary Michael Poole, who's been a central figure in Baxter's cosmology nearly since the beginning, is even hauled back onstage in virtu to try to establish communication with the daughter; while his final sacrifice is moving, this novella is one of those stories which serves more as a link in the future history than as a stand-alone tale. "Mayflower II", on the other hand, is a classic generation-starship tale in which a slower-than-light ship launched in the 55th century is discovered nearly two hundred centuries later, the descendants of its crew having long since forgotten their original mission. The elegiac tone of a forgotten past reclaimed in humanity's last days is even more intense in the book's original novella, "The Siege of Earth", set a million years in the future after the sun has begun to die and the Xeelee have finally taken over the solar system. Baxter saves what may be his greatest rhetorical flourish for this tale, because the setting, despite its Vancean dying world backdrop, is a Mars that might almost have come out of Ray Bradbury, with its canals, ruined cities, and children playing in the deserted plains. Many of the surviving humans are escaping into an unknowable pocket universe through booths possibly set up by the Xeelee themselves, but a rebellious 14-year-old boy chooses, under the guidance of an artificial intelligence named Mela, to learn what he can about what's happened to humanity. His journey of discovery takes him to Earth and eventually to the ancient Port Sol, from which the earliest starships were launched, and there he meets ancient Luru Parz, the immortal whom we met back in the very first story (and who provides the book's overall frame narrative). Like any number of chosen children in far future tales (Alvin of Clarke's The City and the Stars comes to mind), he learns that his destiny is the final destiny of humanity, and that in fact he's the last real human, assembled over centuries of genetic engineering by Parz herself. It's perhaps a slightly heavy-handed irony that Baxter's epic comes down not to the vast wars and galactic-size constructions that populate his universe, but to a decision made by a 14-year-old boy, but it's also one of the most human-scaled and touching pieces in the book, and one of the best.

- - -

Compared to Baxter, who provides precise dates for each of his tales and then slots them into a chronology at the back of the book (and who, according to a brief headnote, revised all the material for the collection - presumably with an eye to chronological consistency), Reynolds's future history seems almost cavalier, if not actually sloppy: "My stories fit together like a badly made jigsaw", he writes in his afterword. "Some of the pieces don't even seem to come from quite the same puzzle". But he hardly needs to apologize for what is really just an alternate approach to future history, one which clearly privileges the story over the frame. Whereas the shapes of Baxter's human dramas are sometimes distorted by the need for contextual exposition (as in "Between Worlds"), Reynolds tends to let the stories speak for themselves, sometimes resulting in tighter, more focused narratives. His future history, involving a humanity made up of squabbling subspecies called Conjoiners, Demarchists, and Ultras (all equally threatened by the shadowy machine-mind Inhibitors), provides the setting for four of his novels (Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap), as well the eight stories in Galactic North and a couple of novellas not included here. Three of the stories in Galactic North - "Weather", 'Nightingale", and "Grafenwalder's Bestiary" are original to the collection. Unlike Baxter, Reynolds doesn't specify dates for all of his stories, but the scale of time we can infer is comparatively modest: Reynolds's opening story "Great Wall of Mars" takes place not long after the first Conjoiners - humans with nano-augmented brains that permit them to function as a kind of transcendent group mind - are made in the 23rd century, while the final story, "Galactic North", begins in the 24th century before taking its protagonist on an odyssey of pursuit that stretches out to 40,000 A.D.

There's also a good deal of war in Reynolds's universe, but it's more likely to be war between factions of humanity than between humans and alien civilizations. "Great Wall of Mars" describes the early days of the Conjoiners as their founder Galiana schemes for their survival in the face of a genocidal attack on their Martian compound (surrounded by the Great Wall of the title) by the repressive Earth government called (by an interesting coincidence with Baxter) the Coalition. It's also a tale of betrayal and shifting loyalties, whose central figure Nevil Clavain, sent by his brother on a negotiating mission to meet with Galiana, learns that the brother has plotted to have both him and the neutral Demarchist observer killed as a pretext for breaking a treaty with the Conjoiners. Suffering a head wound, Nevil is saved by a procedure that also turns him into a Conjoiner - but then finds his humanity tested almost immediately when he learns that the Conjoiners plan to leave behind a near-autistic girl whose nearly entire mental capacity has been devoted to maintain the now-crumbling wall. Rescuing the girl, he joins the group through a secret escape route that will eventually take them safely away from Coalition forces.

Clavain also shows up in the second tale, "Glacial", which also forgoes grand scale in the service of a more intimate tale of character, this time cast in the form of a familiar SF version of a murder mystery. On the ice-cap of a primitive planet, he and the other Conjoiners find that an American colony has somehow gotten there before them, and that all its members have died under strange circumstances - except for one climatologist who somehow cryonically preserved himself, with only faint hope of ever being rescued. There's a suitable and satisfying twist at the end, but the tale hardly needs to be part of any future history at all. "A Spy in Europa", though shorter, is more politically complex: here a spy from Gilgamesh Isis, one of two superpowers controlling the habitable moons of Jupiter, infiltrates the main city of Europa, controlled by the rival Demarchists. He learns of the Denizens, humans radically altered to survive in toxic environments, and after he completes his mission of assassinating a sleeper agent long ago planted on Europa, he meets up with them in a traditional horror-comic comeuppance ending. A similar horror-story ending, with a bit more punch, shows up in "Grafenwalder's Bestiary", an oddly comic-grotesque tale of rival collectors of exotic life forms, and in the fine "Nightingale", in which a team of commandos trying to capture a notorious war criminal finds him on the long-abandoned hospital ship of the title, a ship which turns out to be a smart environment worthy of Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream". It's one of the more genuinely disturbing tales in the book, but again in ways that have nothing in particular to do with any unfolding future history.

Having borrowed from mystery, espionage, and horror tales, he even takes a page from romance in "Weather", which begins as a flight-from-pirates space opera but turns into what is perhaps the most moving portrait of a Conjoiner in the book: after the pirate ship is destroyed by a fortuitous accident, a Conjoiner woman is rescued from the wreckage. Disdainful of normal humans and separated from her group mind, she nevertheless develops a growing relationship with the narrator, leading her to sacrifice herself - and her enhanced mind - to save the engines damaged by the pirate attack. Reynolds even offers a sort of ghost story in "Dilation Sleep", in which a crew member awakened from "reefersleep" to perform surgery on a still-sleeping fellow crew member finds himself followed by a mysterious watcher, even though he's knows he's the only one awake and that there is no evidence of intruders. Written some years before Reynolds's novels or any of the other stories here, it barely seems to fit into the future history at all, except that the solution to the mystery involves the alien "Melding Plague" that later features elsewhere in the series. The final story in the book, appropriately, is the one which not only brings together several of Reynold's major themes, but fills in a fair amount of future-history backstory and is the only one to go trampolining off into the long-jump perspectives we often associate with large-scale future histories. "Galactic North" begins with another space pirate attack, on a damaged ship which has lashed itself to a comet for repairs. This time the pirates are particularly vicious, but the thrust of the tale focuses on the two survivors they capture, Irravel and Markarian, the latter who joins the pirate's main ship in a bargain to keep the Irravel alive. And indeed both are rendered virtually immortal by being reconstituted as part of their ships. Long after the pirates have died, Irravel pursues Markarian's ship through millennia, until the two of them become an ancient legend. It's the beautiful and romantic tale that most clearly reveals the outlines of Reynolds's future history, but more important it reveals his essential approach to the whole notion of future history, and how it differs from Baxter's: Baxter's Gibbonesque approach sees human destiny in terms of power and conflict; Reynolds, with his mostly self-contained tales and decidedly more poetic voice, sees it in terms of legend and romance.

Read more!

This is one of over forty reviews from the January 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated. Anonymous comments will not be posted.


Post a Comment

<< Home