Stephen Baxter: Manifold

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

21 responses to “Stephen Baxter: Manifold

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    The descriptions of Baxter’s books generally don’t grab me, particularly the way characters are so subsumed to the ideas, but the premise of communicating with an intelligence beyond the heat death of the universe sounds intriguing.

    What exactly is a “lossless computing substrate”? Or is that just a phrase to refer to story magic?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It’s never explained, and I suspect it’s a case of working backwards from requirements. What would be necessary for mind to survive heat death? Magical “lossless” computing, of course.

      One thing I found almost disturbingly missing was real motivations for some of the major groups involved. (Particularly the squid, which I think would have been fascinating.) We also find out nothing about any of our distant descendants other then the few glimpses seen by the robot sent through the portal (which takes exponentially increasing time jumps showing the future of humanity).

      So the really distant future amounts to god-like unknowns interfering for unclear reasons. (We’re given to believe some segment of future humanity wants a “do over” but that’s about all we learn.)

      I’ve just started the second novel, Space. In this universe, Reid Malenfant is a former Space Shuttle pilot, although NASA crapped out and abandoned space with the ISS half-completed. The Europeans and Japanese have taken up the mantle, and the Japanese are industrializing and colonizing the Moon. Reid, due to his obsession with galactic exploration, has become a favorite kook for talk shows. But a Japanese scientist has invited him to visit her on the Moon because she’s found signs of alien activity in the asteroid belt. (I’m guessing von Neumann machines.)

      This series is mainly about the Fermi Paradox. Book one answers that humans are the only mind that ever formed in this universe or any other. Book two has aliens of some kind!

      FWIW, Baxter has done some alternate history books (a genre that usually leaves me cold) and apparently he spends a lot more time on character in those. In book one, Reid came off very much as Elon Musk. So much so I just imagined Musk in the role. Here he’s more like one of those former astronauts who’s gotten obsessed with some aspect of space.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Ok, thanks! That eliminates any need for me to actually read it.

        I’m generally the same way with alt history. It just doesn’t appeal to me. Although I guess technically a lot of fantasy ends up amounting to that. Howard and Tolkien saw their settings as a lost age of our world, but much of modern fantasy simply stopped bothering to connect their world with ours in any way.

        And there’s something about the idea of tackling the same idea (Fermi’s paradox) with the same characters but different realities that really turns me off. But I’m not sure what it is.

        More broadly, Baxter sounds somewhat like a Poul Anderson, a writer who tackles all kinds of interesting themes, but is often lacking in the execution.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “And there’s something about the idea of tackling the same idea (Fermi’s paradox) with the same characters but different realities that really turns me off.”

        Ha, that’s funny, it’s part of what attracted me to the series: jazz variations on a theme. I was curious, in part, whether it would come off as like a repertory group doing different plays (where the repeating characters are strictly coincidental) or whether it would be true variations on a central theme.

        It’s mostly like the former, which makes me wonder what the point was, but there are some cute parallels. E.g. In Time, Malenfant has cancer, which is easily managed by drugs, but keeps it secret and deliberately drives his wife away (but turns around and employs her). In Space, it’s Emma who got cancer and, in this case, died. So she’s not even in the book except as a memory.

        Certain notes ring loudly in both. Baxter is clearly not happy with NASA or America’s approach to space flight. And the idea of a rich private individual tackling space flight is in both, although it’s a new character in Space. The interplanetary rocket (BDB — Big Dumb Booster), cobbled together from available tech, is essentially the same in both. Baxter is, I believe, especially unhappy about the current lack of heavy lift capability.

        I think it says a lot that, despite my love for hard SF, I don’t think I’ll end up becoming a Baxter fan. (Oddly, I’m not that big on Bear or Benford, so maybe I’m not as into hard SF as I think.) I do want to check out the series he did with Pratchett, but I’ve heard it’s more Baxter than Pratchett. (The description doesn’t sound very Pratchett-like.)

        It might also be that I know too much to get much from Baxter. Most of the ideas he uses I’ve run into already in SF or science. He’s not introducing me to any new ideas, and a lot of it feels really derivative to me. All artists steal, but some are better at applying their own daubs to old ideas.

        There is also that Baxter has a pretty broad approach to “hard” SF. 3753 Cruithne is real and as Baxter describes, but signals from the future are on sketchy ground. It may be that he’s a bit broad for my tastes in hard SF. He veers from hard reality to magic too much for me.

        Space has been okay for the first 100+ (of 400+) pages, but it’s already fragmenting the storyline so much I’m starting to lose interest.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I know a lot of people were intrigued by Baxter’s approach. Just goes to show that art is a very subjective thing.

        I recently made the comment to someone that it’s actually very hard to come up with new ideas in science fiction. Most of the interesting ones were explored in one way or another prior to World War II. (Not all of course, and sometimes you have to have a flexible conception of the idea.)

        But execution matters. An old idea with interesting characters and twists still works. Even if it actually is a new idea, execution is still important. But if all you have is the idea, then it better be new and powerful.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        One reason I’m a fan of Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan is that they do come up with new ideas. Terry Pratchett and Stephen R. Donaldson are also very creative writers, both with new spins on fantasy. But, yeah, in general, it is very hard to find something new — that’s what makes those really talented ones stand out.

        Come to think of it, hard (or hard-ish) SF is about the only form of writing that can have truly new ideas based on evolving science or technologies. Coming up with a new spin on a romance or detective story is all but impossible.

        I guess that’s the thing about making tech or science (or aliens) a character in your story. We’ve been telling stories about humans for a very long time and have really plowed that field. Hard SF does open the door to some truly new ideas.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I am liking Manifold: Space a bit more than I did the first book. It’s still very episodic and fragmented due to how it skips through time, but the story does include some neat new elements.

    In this reality, life is everywhere and has been for some time. There are repeating waves of colonization, exploration, and exploitation, that leave unprotected worlds severely altered or utterly wasted.

    It turns out that Venus, for one example, is the way it is because some race needed an acidic environment so they destroyed what was originally an Earth-like planet. We find signs in the Solar System of other exploitation.

    Here, because life and mind are universal, the galaxy is a highly competitive place and the needs of burgeoning populations demand aggressive exploitation.

    This novel begins with what are first thought to be von Neuman machines detected in the asteroid belt…

    • SelfAwarePatterns

      Does sound interesting. Is there an explanation for our current inability to detect anything? Or is the answer that everyone’s hiding?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        We’ve only been looking a short blip in time when there wasn’t anything to see. Until first part of the current wave reached us. One thing they’ve discovered is that, in addition to species exploitative colonization, something knocks everyone back once in a while and things start over.

        Generally speaking, none of these races is particularly interested in communication, let alone trade. They just take what they need, if they can. Everyone is involved in a desperate race for room and resources. As time progresses we do start to see stars going out or severely altering the characteristics in the direction of the on-coming wave.

        One cool new thing in this book is a form of transportation.

        Any star acts as a gravity lens, and there is a focal point where the rays of distant stars converge. Supposedly there is a gain of billions involved.

        So some ancient civilization planted transport rings in the “saddle points” of stars that allows signaling (at light speed) between stars. These rings can (destructively) scan matter and transmit the quantum information to a ring at the focal point of another star where it’s reconstructed using entangled particles. (This is quantum teleportation such as has already been demonstrated for individual particles.)

        Wrinkle #1: These rings use entangled matter, of which they have a large but finite supply. When the matter is used up, the ring stops transporting.

        Wrinkle #2: Because the human mind (per Baxter) uses quantum effects which aren’t transported 100% faithfully, humans who use the network suffer a progressive decline in their ability to experience qualia.

        Definitely not something I’ve seen before!

        The time jumps here come from being frozen in transit during the time it takes at light speed. When Reid Malenfant starts to die from old age his alien companion starts sending him on loops through the network until help can arrive.

        Also: This book has orbital trees. (Ever read Niven’s The Integral Trees?)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Sounds like a pretty bleak universe. Although if Malenfant has an alien companion, it must be possible for at least some interspecies friendships to exist.

        Never read The Integral Trees, but I’ve heard of it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It was less a matter of friendship than of Good Samaritan ethics. The alien in question was an evolved machine lifeform (not a von Neuman machine as humans first thought), and their species showed what amounts to scientific interest in humanity but no visible concern.

        Definitely bleak in the “nature, red of tooth and claw” sense. Species competition on a galactic scale. Bleak AF!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        An evolved machine lifeform? Isn’t that, like, a lifeform? Or did they start out designed and then evolved from that point?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Baxter hand-waves this, but they supposedly evolved from machine ancient unicellular forms through primitive creatures and on to them. Which, yes, exactly is supposed to be the equivalent of our evolution. (Also the basis of a pretty funny Futurama episode.)

        What makes them “machines” is being (a) made of metal components, which (b) are easily and instantly configurable and replaceable. Their names for themselves consist of a list of current components along with sub-listings for the history of those components (kinda like we do with aircraft). They swap modules among themselves, so their sense of who they are — their very identity — is fluid. They never debate a decision among individuals but merge into a single mind that thinks long and hard about the issue. The individuals that leave such a merging may not be the exact same ones that entered.

        Their minds, being strictly computational, lack certain qualities. OTOH, they are not subject to the degradation of mind I described for human brains. Part of their interest in us involves how we think. They don’t get it any more than we really get how they think.

        Their original world (which they refer to as “0-0-0-0” — the origin coordinate), which Baxter has some characters visit, is an iron ball with the kind of metal-reducing fluid chemistry we might find in metallurgical labs.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        You’re making me want to read this book. It sounds like it’s flush with ideas.

        Alastair Reynold had an organic alien race that could exchange limbs with each other. Of course, why that capability would have been naturally selected wasn’t really explored.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That’s kind of the problem I have with Baxter’s machine race. I can see a metal-based life form arising, but the easily swapped components aspect doesn’t seem evolutionary to me. Baxter tends to introduce things without ever exploring or explaining them. That’s actually kind of like real life, but can be annoying sometimes in a story.

        Let me “Star Trek it” a bit… Suppose we start with metallic “unicellular” forms with machine-like properties. (Meaning, unlike with our cellular machinery, the mechanisms within are much larger than molecular scale.) Let’s further suppose there is no genetic material to speak of, but these units can combine in myriad ways.

        Exactly as we build machines today, tiny units combine to small units which combine to medium and so on to whatever scale might be possible. Given a basic approach involving modules, maybe that extends in complex life forms to being able to swap larger modules. And, in the same way future humans might use genetics, the module swapping might be the product of intelligent behavior rather than an innate thing. Perhaps at one time they modified themselves to make it possible (or easier) and those mods “breed true.”

        Baxter does say that when these machine people want to make a new individual, two “adults” combine parts of their bodies into a new body which goes off to the part supply warehouse (something Baxter never explains) to get whatever other parts they want to feel whole.

        It reminds me a little of Hogan’s robot life evolving on Titan (Code of the Lifemaker and The Immortality Option), although those guys started as a disabled von Neuman machine that crashed on Titan.

        One nice thing about these is that, other than Baxter’s overarching theme exploring the Fermi Paradox, there is no connection between books in the trilogy. There are beat notes that repeat, but they’re external to the story. One could read any of these, in any order, without reading the others.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It sounds like it has a lot of mind candy. And based on a quick perusal of the preview, just added it to my Kindle, although I’m not sure when I’ll get around to reading it. (Might be soon. I need a break from non-fiction, or at least non-fiction that requires a lot of work.)

        Hogan’s robotic life sounds more like what I would think is necessary for machine life. It starts out as some sort of engineered system, and evolves from there. Since von Neumann probes are self replicating, it seems like a plausible place to start.

        That said, I don’t have to find every conjecture in a sci-fi story plausible to enjoy it. I read a lot of Neal Asher, and much of his stuff amounts to magic.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I quite agree about machine life (those Hogan novels are favorites for me among his work).

        Baxter seems to be very egalitarian in what theories or ideas he takes seriously. Some are diamond-hard SF, some get pretty damn magical. That seems to stand out to me. Most hard (or hard-ish) SF authors seem to stick more with one mode. Baxter is all over the map.

        It’ll be interesting to see what his work with Pratchett is like, but I think I’ve got other books to read first (including book three of this series).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I have to say I’m liking this one enough that I’ll probably go on to the third.

        The fourth is apparently a collection of short stories related to the trilogy, but I’m not sure my library has it. (And I have a lot of short story collections to go through now that I’ve discovered the Apple Megapacks. Choice collections of SF for extremely low prices. They also do mystery and romance Megapacks.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The third book turned out to be more of a disappointment, in part for the same reasons expressed here, but in part because most of the story is so dismal. It’s good that there isn’t an overarching story across the three books, since the second one is the only one I really liked. One could read just that story.

    Unusual that, in a trilogy, the middle book is the best. 😀

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