Sunday, 13 November 2016


Stephen Baxter
Gollancz hardcover £20

***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary

This book is the latest collection, from by far the sharpest mind of Arthur C. Clarke’s possible successors, boasts a diversity of deep timelines and intriguing scenarios. It challenges the notion that Baxter might be actually better than Asimov when it comes to weaving together a variety of different stories into a cohesive narrative structure; although that is more accurately a criticism of Asimov’s relative failures at patchwork epics instead of denying Baxter’s ambition to emulate the previous century’s original masters of SF. There are four sections in the book, and the first comprises a quartet of stories, all set in the same milieu as Baxter’s Ultima and Proxima novels.

After an aerial crash, On Chryse Plain is a desert adventure for three kids stranded on Mars. Their survival depends upon optimistic thinking and tech savvy, and the Viking lander is like a welcome guest star.  A Journey To Amasia concerns a post-cyberpunk data miner exploring the centre of the Earth. Standout story Obelisk is about Chinese capital building a mega-structure on Mars. The giant obelisk is a project driven ahead by two overambitious men, and the story features a tragic denouement for a woman. Escape From Eden carries echoes of the first offering, with a joy-riders’ adventure for kids from a dingy Martian work-camp.

Section two is an assortment of six ‘Other Yesterdays’ - alternative histories where the results of halting scientific progress is a shared theme, if only somewhat vaguely. The Jubilee Plot imagines a bridge built over the English Channel and the first race across it, threatened by terrorism. It’s a concise timeline offering more than simply Victorian steampunk. Fate And The Fire-lance finds the Roman empire surviving into the 20th century London where, after a politically-motivated murder, a variation of WWI looks imminent. 

The Unblinking Eye sees an Inca ship sailing into a very dissimilar version of London in the 1960s. Most enjoyable for its critiques of religious dogma, and clever championing of feminism, Darwin Anathema is likely to become an instant favourite, for many atheists, as Baxter presents evolution on trial by the Inquisition creationists of 2009. Mars Abides tells of a ‘volcano summer’ on the red planet for US and USSR colonists. Spanning millennia, from Neolithic prehistory to a 23rd century of radical change, Eagle Song is a SETI mystery of laser signals from Altair. Brimming with big ideas, it’s a pocket-sized epic of hard-SF at its most characterful.

‘Other Todays’ explores a couple of parallel worlds. Pevatron Rats is a fast-escalating SF-horror about super-vermin that can travel through time, and its beginning recalls the infamous ‘rats’ episode of classic TV series Doomwatch. Some even grander ideas are rolled out for The Invasion Of Venus, which explains how a space war in the Solar system has nothing to do with Earth. Yes, that’s how insignificant humans are! Here’s the meat-and-potatoes of genuine science fiction, with simply marvellous stories that make the generic meals cooked up by lesser authors seem like mushy peas and boiled carrots in a pretentious sauce.  

The final section, ‘Other Tomorrows’ offers 21st century visions starting with Turing’s Apples, in which messages from space test the appeal of first-contact optimism as A.I. malware, buried in a signal from alien superiors, produces havoc on Earth - especially for estranged brothers at the heart of scientific and political crises. The macro-cosmic theoretical physics of branes brings a gargantuan slice of awesomeness to Artefacts, a story grounded in the tragedy of morality with humanity as victims of engineering. 

In a boldly impressive tale, Baxter tackles the over-familiarity of superhero adventures with a highly original take in Vacuum Lad. A space rescuer becomes a legend, but his solo accomplishments seem trivial compared to the secretive meta-human colony he finds in orbit. Rock Day concerns avatar sentience after the world ends, and it feels much like a Ray Bradbury fable, with one boy and his dog, and a friendly neighbourhood philosopher. 

Although it is basically just another correspondence story, Starcall delivers an almost pure Clarkean grandeur, as unforeseeable spin-off results from an interstellar pen-pal scheme. Poignant asides emerge from the life-long duration of effort by a human, and the first starship’s A.I., to keep in touch, exchanging audio each decade. There’s trivia, and science and technology notes, and philosophical wisdom found on both sides of a most difficult conversation. Clearly, the need to keep on talking and keep on watching the skies is of decided urgency, if there’s to be any progressive future for humanity.  

Fans of Baxter’s work, ever since his debut novel Raft first appeared, 25 years ago, are bound to treasure this collection of his recent stories. Newcomers will discover there’s an inherent love of the genre, not generics, in Baxter’s finest work which proves again that SF remains the greatest mind-expanding drug available, with or without medical prescription. Do not wait until tomorrow. Go out now, and get your maximum dosage today.

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