Sunday, August 24, 2014

Manifold Space - Stephen Baxter

   2001; 496 pages.  Book Two of the “Manifold” trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : “Hard” Science Fiction; Epic Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Interstellar ET’s have arrived!  Somehow, while we weren’t watching, they took up residence on an asteroid out in the asteroid belt orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.  And now they’re – umm – well, no one is sure exactly what they’re doing out there.  Someone ought to go investigate.

    Who better to send than Reid Malenfant, hero of Book One in the series (Manifold Time, reviewed here), and the guy who first discovered that we are not alone.  Heck, he actually wants to go out and establish contact.

    This plan makes everybody happy.  Until Malenfant disappears in a puff of – umm – well, not smoke.  More like a flash of blue light.

What’s To Like...
     Manifold Space  is the second book in the trilogy, but isn’t really a sequel.  Instead, it is more like Stephen Baxter’s second proposed answer to the Fermi Paradox (“If ET’s are out there, why haven’t they contacted us?”).  Malenfant returns, but he’s cast in a different role with a different character, and frankly gets a lot less ink.

    As with any Baxter novel, the writing is masterful, with emphasis on the technical aspects of the story.  Here, the setting is the entire Milky Way Galaxy, and the time period is from 2020 AD  to some point in time way beyond 8800 AD.  This is “Hard” Science Fiction, and Baxter comes up with some remarkably plausible ways (Quantum Physics is our friend) to have 4 or 5 main characters stay alive 6+ centuries and travel all over the cosmos.

    The book is a science geek’s delight.  Some familiar themes are here, such as teleportation and time-travel.  But there were also some new concepts (at least to me) such as Dyson structures and the Polynesian Syndrome; both of which have Wikipedia articles.  Baxter also invents some new technologies, such as the fascinating concept of Phytomines.  We are introduced to three major ET species (Gaijin, Chaera, and Crackers), a bunch of extinct terran creatures (including Neanderthals), and Malefant gets taken to see a whole bunch of other inhabited worlds.

    The overall tone of the book is bleak.  Humans burn through the resources of several planets and moons, and aliens with superior technology are on their way to our Solar System.  But the book closes with a rather surprisingly hopeful (albeit “good-news/bad-news”) ending.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Spavined (adj.) : Old and decrepit.
Others : Picaresque; Cicerone; Fripperies

    The Gaijin had a somewhat mathematical philosophy.  Malenfant thought it sounded suspiciously like a religion.
    The Gaijin believed that the universe was fundamentally comprehensible by creatures like themselves – like humans, like Malenfant.  That is, they believed it possible that an entity could exist that could comprehend the entire universe, arbitrarily well.
    And they had a further principle that mandated that if such a being could exist, it must exist.
    The catch was that they believed there was a manifold of possible universes, of which this was only one.  So She may not exist in this universe.  (pg. 215)

    “I want everybody involved, and everybody paying.  Now we’re in the mantle we can market the TV rights –“
    “Frank, they don’t have TV any more.”
    “Whatever.  I want the kids involved, all those little dark-eyed kids I see flapping around the palm threes the whole time with nothing to do.  I want games.  Educational stuff.  Clubs to join, where you pay a couple of yen for a badge and get some kind of share certificate.  I want little toy derricks in cereal packets.”
    “They don’t have cereal packets any more.”
    He eyed her.  “Work with me here, Xenia.”  (pg. 244)

“There are trees here,” he said.  “Grass.  Flowers.  Animals.”  You see biochemistry.  I see a flower, he thought..  (pg.  135)
    The weakest part of Manifold Space is the storyline itself.  It exists, but gets buried beneath all the Hard Sci-Fi wizardry and the personal interactions, and I ended up quite often asking myself “Is this all heading anywhere?”

    For the record, and this is not a spoiler, the main plotline is simply “Why have the Gaijin come to our Solar System?”  Baxter teases us with a couple twists as to the possible answer, then closes with a totally unanticipated, yet logical, resolution.

    Still, Manifold Space is neither story-driven, nor character-driven.  If the bizarre principles of Quantum Mechanics don’t float your boat, and you don’t muse about where mankind will realistically be in 6000 years, you will probably find this book somewhat of a slog.

    7½ Stars.  It’s not my favorite Stephen Baxter book (that would be Evolution, reviewed here), but the scientist in me still enjoyed the mental work-out.

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