Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Manifold - Time by Stephen Baxter

   2000; 472 pages. Book One of the “Manifold” trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : “Hard” Science Fiction.  Laurels : Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee in 2000.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Reid Malenfant has always wanted to go flying in space, but NASA has turned down his application to be an astronaut.  So, being rich and ambitious, he is doing the only logical thing – building his own spaceship.

    Meanwhile, there seems to be a spate of births of super-smart kids around the world.  They seem to be able to grasp concepts like Quantum Physics when only 4 or 5 years old, and without anyone teaching them its principles.  The weird thing is, no matter how isolated they are, they all have one thing in common – a fascination with blue circles.

    And then there’s those bizarre squid experiments going on in Florida.

What’s To Like...
     Manifold: Time is the first book in a three-part “Hard” Science Fiction series wherein Stephen Baxter explores various aspects of Quantum Physics.  Here, obviously, the focus is on Time as a dimension through which one can traverse both forward and back.

    I found the first hundred pages or so to be a bit dry.  It was mostly concerned with the business  angles of trying to start up your own space program.  The NASA politicking and governmental meddling were interesting, but not really science fiction.  However, lift-off occurs at page 100, so if you make it that far, you will be rewarded with a fast-paced, complex story that keeps the action flowing right up through the last page.

    The character development is rich and extensive.  The main hero throughout the series is Reid Malenfant, but he can be a butthead at times.  Just ask his ex, Emma.  Heck, even Sheena has a 3-D personality, and she’s a . . . well, you’ll find out.

    There are no chapters in the book; instead each change in POV  is titled by the name of the primary person therein.  The ending is satisfying, albeit not all that upbeat.  But not to worry; there are two more books in the series.

    Stephen Baxter throws in a slew of kewl things, such as Shit Cola, and e-therapists.  The latter are computerized shrinks; I'll let you decide whether that's an improvement or not.  Baxter also introduces the reader to a number of somewhat obscure astronomical and quantum mechanical ideas – Olbers’ Paradox, a Centauro Event, the Doomsday probability, etc.  It was a fascinating geek-read.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Heuristically (adv.)  :  in a manner of or relating to exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques (such as the evaluation of feedback) to improve performance.

    “Quite a prospectus those kids offer,” Dan was saying.
    “New technologies, new medicine, new clean power.  What sounded like a utopian political and ethical framework.  Peace and prosperity for all.”
    “Absolutely,” Maura said.
    “So, you think anyone will listen?”
    “Not a hope in hell.”  (pg. 316)

    Malenfant found he was bleakly exhilarated.  “Life is no accident,” he said.  “No second-order effect, no marginal creation.  We – small, insignificant creatures scurrying over our fragile planet, lost in the Galaxy – we were, after all, the center of the universe.”  It was, in its extraordinary way, an affirmation of all he had ever believed.  “Hah,” he barked.  “Copernicus, blow it out your ass!”  (pg. 469)

 “Here’s the question . . .  how would you detect a signal from the future?”  (pg.  56)
    Manifold: Time was written (published, actually) in 2000, with the story taking place in the “future” year of 2010.  Needless to say, most of the book’s “2010 predictions” have not occurred, but it is slightly unnerving to contemplate the “could-have-beens” postulated in the book.

    One caveat – this is “hard” Science Fiction – a realistic assessment of the myriad possible doors that Quantum Physics might open to us.  If the technical details of things like multiverses, wormholes and time-travel appeal to your inner-geek, this is your kind of book.  OTOH, if Wookies, phasers, and little green men are more to your sci-fi taste, you may find Manifold: Time tedious.

    8½ Stars.  Add or subtract  ½-to-one star depending on your geek factor.

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