Recently I posted about Manifold: Time, the first book in a trilogy by Stephen Baxter, a writer new to me. As I wrote, I wasn’t very whelmed, but a bad meal at a new restaurant can be a fluke — it’s only fair to give the chef at least one more chance. (A single data point doesn’t mean much.) And I did find the overall themes a little intriguing.
As it turned out, I rather enjoyed the second one, Manifold: Space. The story stayed grounded and engaged me throughout, plus there were several cool science fiction ideas I’d never encountered before (which is kinda the point of reading hard SF). So a definite thumbs up on book number two.
Unfortunately the third book, Manifold: Origin, didn’t do much for me.
What’s funny is that, up to the last 20 pages, the book was ‘fine if you like that sort of thing’ (I just didn’t). It was only at the very end it got weird.
Before I proceed: SPOILER WARNING! I’m freely discussing all three books.
Warning: this post is longer than my usual, but it’s really two posts in one (so actually it’s slightly shorter than usual).
The three novels unfold in three separate realities, centering on three versions of the primary character Reid Malenfant. Various other characters repeat, most importantly Emma Stoney (Malenfant’s wife) and Nemoto, a Japanese woman crucial in books two and three.
There are variations on motifs. In Time, Malenfant, an Elon Musk type person, has cancer (which he keeps secret from Emma), but it’s easily managed by technology. In Space, when the story starts, Emma has already died of cancer (and Reid is a former Space Shuttle pilot). In Origin, they’re a couple (Reid is a washed out astronaut), but spend most of the book separated.
One clear constant, an overarching theme, is the relationship between Malenfant and Stoney. It’s always very strong, but also very mixed and one-sided.
All three books involve a circular portal ringed in blue light, but exactly what the portal does differs each time.
Another repeating motif is that Baxter doesn’t seem happy with NASA and our approach to space flight. One item common to all three books is the Big Dumb Booster (BDB), an interplanetary heavy launch system similar to the shuttle launch system but without the shuttle and with a (large) payload on the nose (centering it on the axis of thrust).
Baxter describes it in fair (nearly identical) detail in all three books. In Time, it gets Malenfant and company to 3753 Cruithne. In Space, it gets Madeleine Meacher to Venus. In Origin, it gets Malenfant and Nemoto to the Red Moon.
The main theme of the trilogy is the Fermi Paradox. Baxter explores three possible reasons we see no signs of Others in the galaxy.
Time answers that humans are the only mind that ever formed in this universe or any other. We see no one else because there is no one else.
Space answers that life and mind form everywhere it can possibly exist and that all that life competes vigorously for resources in the galaxy. But it all gets wiped out every 100 million years or so from a galactic extinction event. We haven’t seen anyone because the current wave of exploitative colonization just hasn’t reached us yet. (In the book, it does.)
The answer in Origin is more complex. The big reveal answer is that we see no signs of Others because we’ve been deliberately placed in a safe, empty universe. Or, as it turns out, universes.
Origin also answers that some species choose to live in balance with their environment rather than (as humanity does) expand with all their might. An expansive species always needs new territory and resources, but one that lives in balance can be self-sustaining.
According to Baxter. I got a whiff of ‘primitive societies are better’ from it. There is some truth to that, although, as Origins itself demonstrates, primitive life, to quote Tennyson, is “red in tooth and claw.”
I already wrote about Manifold: Time, so see that post if you haven’t already.
In Manifold: Space, Reid Malenfant is a former Space Shuttle pilot, although in this reality NASA crapped out and abandoned space with the ISS half-completed. As already mentioned, Emma died of cancer.
Due to his obsession with galactic exploration, Reid has become a favorite (kooky) guest for talk shows, but amounts to little else.
The Japanese took up the mantle of space exploration, and they are industrializing and colonizing the Moon. The novel starts when a Japanese scientist, Nemoto, invites Malenfant to visit her lab on the Moon.
It turns out she’s found signs of alien activity in the asteroid belt.
What are first thought to be von Neumann machines turn out to be the very first of an approaching wave of different species involved in exploitative, destructive, even bloody and warlike, expansion.
Luckily for humanity, this first species is relatively benign. We call them the Gaijin (Japanese for “foreigner”), and it turns out that, despite being metallic and machine-like, they evolved from ancient (metallic and machine-like) unicellular forms on an iron world with the kind of metal-reducing fluid chemistry we might find in metallurgical labs.
They are, by the way, the only aliens we really meet in the book (there is a brief encounter with one other).
I found them interesting — one of the new ideas that made this book seem less derivative than Time.
The Gaijin swap body modules and reconfigure themselves as easily as we change clothes. In fact, they view it much the same: the right “clothes” for the right situation.
Because of the module swapping, their sense of who they are — their very identity — is fluid. Their self-names consist of a list of current components along with sub-listings for the history of those components (much as we do with aircraft).
For important decisions, they merge into a single physical unit with a single mind that thinks long and hard about the issue. The individuals leaving such a merging may not be the exact same ones that entered.
They create new individuals by combining parts from two parent units. The new unit then goes off to the “parts warehouse” to fill out their configuration with anything else they need.
They don’t make friends with us so much as study us. Some think they’re waiting for short-lived humanity to simply get out of the way.
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 star converge. (According to Baxter. I have questions.) This lens effect leads to a signal gain of billions.
An ancient unknown civilization used sub-light travel to plant transport rings (blue-edged portals) at these “saddle points.” The rings enable light speed communication between nearby stars. They (destructively) scan matter and transmit the quantum information to a ring at another star where it’s reconstructed using entangled particles.
(This is quantum teleportation such as has already been demonstrated for individual particles.)
The rings use entangled matter, of which they have a large but finite supply. When it’s used up, the ring stops transporting. And in fact, parts of this network have already gone off-line.
A twist is that, 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.
The Gaijin have strictly computational minds that lack certain qualities, but are not subject to the degradation suffered by human brains. Part of their interest in us involves how we think. They don’t get it any more than we get how they think.
Because people are frozen information during transmission, the story can jump by dozens or hundreds of years. The timeline of the novel goes forward thousands of years.
The big reveal is that we discover these exploitative expansions have been going on for billions of years.
We find out that Venus is the way it is because some race needed a planet like that, so they destroyed what had been an Earth-like one (disregarding any primitive life there and its potential). We find other signs of such massive engineering throughout the Solar system.
In this reality, because life and mind are universal, the galaxy is a highly competitive place and the needs of burgeoning populations demand aggressive exploitation.
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.
Races generally don’t have time for trade or scientific exploration. The basic premise is that, once a species grows big enough, its only hope for remaining viable is ruthless exploitative expansion.
All in all, I liked Space a lot more than I did Time. It’s episodic and fragmented due to how it skips through time, but the story includes some neat new ideas and stays grounded with the characters more.
I think this is the book to read if you read just one of these.
Which brings us to Manifold: Origin, where we finally learn what the three names, Time, Space, and Origin, mean.
They are references to a graph with one axis of time and one axis of space (very much like 2D spacetime diagrams). The third title, refers to the “zero-zero” point of both axes — the origin.
Which is a neat idea, but I don’t see what Baxter does with it. The first book, Time, has empty space with lone human mind along the time axis. The second book, Space, has mind throughout space, but interrupted in time.
The third book is, somehow, the origin of the axes, but the zero-zero point would imply no time and no space (and no mind?), so I’m confused on exactly what Baxter meant. It’s possible he’s doing a pun on “origin” since we find out about our origins.
I will note that this one covers the shortest time (by far) of the three. I think all events take place in the span of a few months. The second books ends up in the 8000s, if I recall, and the first book goes all the way to the end time of the universe.
Given the short time span, the book is far more focused on the events in the characters’ lives during that time and far less fragmented than the others.
The basic story of Origin is that, suddenly, our Moon is replaced by the Red Moon, a much larger satellite — one with an atmosphere, land, water.
At the same moment, for a brief time there is also a blue-edged portal that appears in the sky. Bodies spill from it (and die far below). Reid Malenfant and Emma Stoney, flying near in a T-38 trainer jet, encounter flight problems and have to bail out. Emma is sucked into the portal while Reid lands safely back on Earth.
Malenfant, with Nemoto’s help, puts together a mission using the BDB to visit the Red Moon hoping to find Emma (Nemoto, as usual, has a different agenda).
Emma is indeed on the Red Moon, and the story consists mainly of their separate threads until, as it turns out, Emma saves Reid from death near the end of the book. Well, briefly saves him. He ends up dying of his injuries.
The bodies that fell from the portal before it vanished have human DNA, but can’t quite be classified as to what type of human. Certainly nothing modern on Earth. They seem to be from some ancient hominid bloodline.
Emma, and then Reid and Nemoto, discover the Red Moon well populated with different races of hominid. There are Runners, who inhabit the plains; short omnivore Elves and strong stocky vegetarian Nutcracker people, who inhabit the forest; and big Hams who live anywhere they damn well please.
There are also two human groups that clearly came from different realities. One is stiff upper lip empire-era British maintaining standards; the other is a religious nut case (less human that initially supposed) trying to take over the world.
All these groups represent obstacles Emma, Reid, and Nemoto, must navigate. Reid and Nemoto arrive together in the lander, but things go sour for them almost immediately, and they are separated.
Nemoto ends up with the hominid species who arrives from the world the Red Moon visits after it finally leaves Earth. The species, which ends up being called Daemons, resemble silverback gorillas and is far advanced scientifically (but also far below those behind the Red Moon).
They have visited by “Mapping” themselves from where they were in reality to where they wish to be. They brought with them a large platform of “Adjusted Space” they can mold to anything they need. It’s essentially a portable village.
The Runners, Elves, Nutcrackers, and Hams, all live an unchanging stable life most characterized by being as brutal as it is brief. Life is short, filled with pain and struggle, and it has no meaning.
Yet Baxter characterizes members of these societies as essentially content, if not exactly happy. He focuses on the comfort in the simple routine of living off the land. Importantly, these societies never expand beyond what can be obtained moment to moment. As such, they never need to seek new resources, never need to explore new territory. Life is static.
The advanced species at the end, the gorillas, who have such an outlook, come from a highly advanced Earth (that never had a Moon) where social lineages have persisted for millions of years. This species chose a path of being self-sustaining.
At one point, ManeKato, the main character of the gorilla society, tells Emma a childhood parable of their people. The story, intended to horrify, involves the ancient family farm:
“The mother said, ‘When I die, you will be free to act. Do with it what you will.’ The daughter pondered these words.
“And when the mother died, the daughter took a torch and set fire to her Farm — every bit of it, the buildings and crops and creatures.
“When asked why she had done this — for of course, without a Farm, her Lineage would be extinguished — the daughter said, ‘One night of glory is better than a thousand years of toil.’”
The big Daemon actually shuddered as she finished her tale.
“We have a similar legend,” Emma said. “There was a warrior, called Achilles. The gods gave him a choice: a brief life of glory, or a long, uneventful life in obscurity. Achilles chose the glory.” She looked up at Mane. “In my culture, that story is regarded as uplifting.”
One answer to the Fermi Paradox has always been that a species might choose not to expand. (Or to deliberately stay out of space for whatever reason.) Baxter tries to illustrate such a society.
The tale is told from many points of view: Mostly Emma’s and Malenfant’s, but also Nemoto’s, Manekato’s, and various hominids — two, Fire, a Runner, and Shadow, an Elf, feature prominently.
The thing is, with the exception of Mane, who has the power of an advanced civilization, everyone else leads a bleak existence, brutalized by random and intentional events. Malenfant gets brutalized to death, others nearly so. The story of Shadow is particularly ugly.
None of this was any fun for me to read, and the entire story is characterized by a complete lack of victories or significant progress. Malenfant fails to find Emma and dies without finding out what’s going on (his greatest goal).
To quote a Warren Zevon tune, it’s a story of “sweat, piss, jizz, and blood.”
The overall message is that life is short, brutal, and pointless. Try though you might, reality will generally fuck you over.
Time has much the same message, but on a time scale of millions of years. Even Space has the bleakness of being alone in the universe throughout time.
Simply put, all three books are bleak and without joy. Origin, especially.
For me that’s a pretty big con and has a lot to do with my low rating.
(Speaking of which… Time: Eh! Space: Ah! Origin: Meh!)
The big reveal in Origin is that our distant ancestors at the end of time, in a human-only universe such as in Time, “reached to the deepest past” to alter reality, somehow creating a “sheaf” of infinite universes (apparently spawned from black holes).
The Red Moon skips among realities and uses the portal to scoop up hominids from one reality and (usually safely) dump them in another. It’s been doing this for millions of years. Now it’s breaking down.
Both Time and Origin had whiffs of Chalker’s Well World series, where advanced beings control all of reality including lesser species which they created. Origin even features a trip inside the broken machine at the end.
So we don’t see Others because we’ve been put in “nursery” universes empty of mind by far distant ancestors trying for a more interesting existence.
The last 20 pages are mostly an info dump of what they perceive is going on, and (unlike in Space) there is no final conflict or battle. After what amounts to a brutal disappointing quest journey, the survivors find out some stuff.
Then nothing changes and life goes on.
Baxter seems very egalitarian in what theories or ideas he takes seriously. Some are diamond-hard SF, some are closer to magical. For example, 3753 Cruithne is much as Baxter describes, but signals from the future are a much sketchier proposition.
That broad range stands out to me. I have an impression most hard (or hard-ish) SF authors aren’t quite so broad in the theories they embrace. Baxter is all over the map. (I find it makes me question how hard the hard stuff is.)
One problem is that a lot of it feels derivative to me. All artists steal, but some are better at applying some new paint to old ideas.
There is also that he introduces a lot of ideas but doesn’t explore them in detail. That, too, is very much like real life, but can be frustrating in a story.
For one example, we find out nothing about any of our distant descendants other then the few glimpses afforded the characters at a couple of points. The distant future amounts to god-like unknowns interfering back through time for reasons. (We’re given to believe some segment of future humanity wants a “do over” but that’s about all we learn, and it’s actually a guess.)
I wonder where they got the power, given they exist at or beyond heat death. Let alone the ability to affect the past, but Baxter claims it’s possible and it does, in progressive way, change the future. In fact, in this case, that’s the whole point.
I don’t think I’ll become a Baxter fan. I want to check out the series he did with Terry Pratchett, but I’ve read that it’s more Baxter than Pratchett. (The description doesn’t sound very Pratchett-like.)
One nice thing about these is that, other than Baxter’s overarching theme exploring the Fermi Paradox, there is no connection between books of the trilogy. One could read any of these, in any order, without reading the others.
Stay reading, my friends!