Yesterday, courtesy of Cloud Library, I finished Manifold: Time (1999), by Stephen Baxter. It’s my first exposure to Baxter, who has written 60 science fiction novels — none of which I’ve read. Per his Wiki bibliography, he’s written only a half-dozen short stories, also none of which I’ve read. (There are SF authors I’ve only met in short story collections. He isn’t one of them.)
Time is the first of the Manifold trilogy (which has a fourth book, Phase Space); the second and third books are Space (2000) and Origin (2001). Each of the books tells a separate story in a separate universe.
I enjoyed the first book, but I can’t say I was hugely whelmed.
I did check out (in the library sense) Space and will check it out (in the giving it a look sense), but it’s possible I’ll put it down and move on. At this point I have a sense that Baxter might be a workhorse author, like Stephen King or Tom Clancy (or John Grisham or …).
That he cranked out the four volumes of this trilogy in four years while also putting out six other novels (and two non-fiction books) in that time says something.
He’s been writing since 1991, so 60 books (not to mention five non-fiction books) divided by 30 years is two books a year. Every year for three decades.
[Given that it’s really 65 books and 29 years, the actual number is 2.24 books per year, plus whatever else he does. That’s some impressive output.]
This might account for the ‘serviceable but not thrilling’ aspect of Time. If the rest of his work is this ‘serviceable’ I probably won’t be digging deeply into his catalog. (I may not even finish this trilogy given all the other stuff on my reading list.)
So my first reaction is that I didn’t find Time very compelling or engaging. The first part was better, but I ended up skimming pages in the last third of the book.
Which is a little surprising since I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to hard SF. I revel in the interesting — and often unique — ideas, so I’ll overlook plot and character issues.
I think one problem for me with this book is I didn’t find many new ideas. There were a lot of retreads, though. The novel invoked a number of other novels: Arthur Clarke’s Rama series as well as 2001, or Greg Bear’s Eon series. Also of Jack Chalker’s Well World series. And David Brin’s Uplift series. Nothing really grabbed me as new.
A greater problem for me is scope. I just don’t find SF novels that span galaxies or eons very engaging. Very few, if any, authors can pull of the grandiose, and (for my money) Baxter doesn’t seem to be one of them.
[I always thought Asimov pulled it off in his Foundation series. A rare exception. Ironically, his second wife, Janet, wrote (as J.O. Jeppson) an SF novel that’s my canonical example of “scope blowup” silliness. It ends with intelligent galaxies.]
The Manifold series is grandiose in the extreme. I’ll get to that, but it will involve some spoilers.
The main character is Reid Malenfant, who struck me as an Elon Musk analogue. Baxter wrote this in 1999; Musk formed SpaceX in 2002, although he, along with his brother, started Zip2, an online city guide, in 1995. He and brother Kimbal started X.com, which went on to become PayPal, in 1999.
So I think the striking similarity between Reid Malenfant and Elon Musk is coincidence. It may be the prescient prediction that some very rich private person (or corporation) would try to do what NASA does.
And, for many reasons, do it better.
Certainly Malenfant (what a name) and Musk share the vision, the brashness, and the willingness to forge ahead no matter what. One of the conflicts in the story is between Malenfant and the government, especially NASA, which Baxter paints as bumbling and territorial.
Malenfant’s vision is to mine the asteroids (using whatever existing hardware he can cobble together to bootstrap the plan). The wealth contained there is so great, access to it would alter the global economy. Asteroids contain everything from water (more than in all Earth’s oceans) to organics to metals.
But Cornelius Taine, an eschatologist mathematician, also a major shareholder in Malenfant’s corporation, captures Malenfant’s interest by explaining the Doomsday argument. This ends up diverting Malenfant’s resources and efforts in an attempt to detect putative signals from the distant future.
The really distant future — a time beyond the evaporation of black holes — a time of the heat death of the universe. By then humanity has embedded itself in a “lossless computing substrate” that allows mind to continue, but (since all computational states will eventually be computed) which offers nothing new, ever.
Some portion of this mind has decided that things shouldn’t have turned out this way, so they seek to change the past so it didn’t.
One result is that Malenfant and Taine detect a message from the future. This message points them to 3753 Cruithne, an asteroid co-orbital with Earth.
Baxter has a section at the end where he explains that many of the ideas in the book are “real” — by which he mean real scientific theories (or ideas). Some cases, such as 3753 Cruithne, are completely factual. Others, such as messages from the future, are much less so.
Malenfant has had Dan Ystebo, a marine scientist, training genetically enhanced squid to fly the ships that will mine the asteroids. They’ve added intelligence to the squid. Part of the idea is that the squid can be sent on what amount to suicide missions to get the automated asteroid factories started.
Instead, they send the squid to Cruithne. They assume it’s a suicide mission to set up automated robot explorers, but they don’t realize the squid is pregnant. The story of the squid would have made an interesting novel, but they weirdly become side players.
Significant when the plots needs them to be but otherwise not really of any account in the story. Nor do we ever learn much about them beyond the story of Sheena 5, the first squid.
Explaining much more gets me into spoiler territory, although there really isn’t that much to spoil. Given the set up, the story goes where it has to.
One aspect is the Earth’s population becomes persuaded by the Doomsday argument and existential despair sets in. Which results in some people killing other people, mostly off-screen. (One guy blows up MIT.)
Then the confirmation that we have distant ancestors calms society down, at least until the rumors and conspiracy theories begin.
On top of all this, another consequence of manipulation by our distant ancestors is hyper-intelligent but nearly autistic children (the “blues”) start being born. They are alternately heralded and feared, and their story line is a distinct thread.
Suffice to say the children are instrumental in the finale.
Which involves the destruction of the entire universe by introducing a bubble of true vacuum. Thus ends the book.
In the meantime, the original squid, Sheena 5, and a robot, have gone through the portal found on Cruithne to make exponential jumps into the future to see what becomes of humanity.
Reid, his ex-wife Emma (a sub-plot of its own), and Cornelius, also pass through the portal, but they end up visiting many hundreds of different universes (most of which can’t support life).
In turns out that mind only evolved once, on one planet, in one universe. The rest of the multiverse is empty. The rest of this universe is empty. We’re all we ever find.
Apparently the next two books take place in two different universes and involve different stories. But Reid Malenfant is the main character in all three. (Based on the list of characters in the Wiki articles for the next two books, Reid is the only character that repeats.)
Supposedly each of the three has the central theme of answering the Fermi Paradox three different ways. In the case of Time, the answer is that we’re it. Intelligent life simply never evolved anywhere else.
I’m gonna give Space a chance, but with other books clamoring for my attention (including a five-book series Baxter did with Terry Pratchett), we’ll see how it goes.
In any event, now it’s Brin, Bear, Benford, and Baxter, on the list of SF authors who write hard SF and have last names that start with “B”. (Bracketed by Asimov and Clarke.) A cute curiosity. [Tying it together, Benford, Bear, and Brin, all wrote Foundation novels.]
Stay inside reading, my friends!