Visions of Paradise

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Resplendent

Stephen Baxter has the reputation of creating the fullest future history of any current science fiction writer. I have read a handful of his short stories and novellas in various best-of-the-year volumes, and they have been without exception excellent. So when Resplendent, a huge collection of his Xeelee short fiction, was published in England, I decided this was a good time to start reading his fiction in book form before trying one of his several series, which is never a good commitment to make with an author with whom I have limited experience.

Resplendent has verified my initial impression that Baxter is a fine storyteller with a strong sense of wonder and thought-provoking ideas. There is not a bad story in this 600+ page collection, and several of them are superb.

The first section Resurgence contains 4 stories about the Qax domination of Earth. This alien race attempts to eliminate all human culture and history, forcing all humans into “cadres” whose only loyalties lie to the Qax themselves. The exceptions are the immortal Pharoahs who carry out the Qax directives and their underling jasofts who are basically bureaucrats.

The first story “Cadre Siblings” shows life under the Qax. “Conurbation 2473" shows the typical human reaction to their suppressive dictators suddenly fleeing Earth, leaving Earthlings free for the first time in centuries. Rather than banding together to rebuild society, humans fight among themselves for dominance (such as what takes place virtually everywhere in the world nowadays). The best story of this group is “Reality Dust,” the story of a group of free humans pursuing fleeing Renegades to a moon of Jupiter where they find amazing scientific research taking place.

The next section The War with the Ghosts shows episodes from the millennia-long war between humans and a symbiotic race known as the Silver Ghosts. It is hard throughout this section to consider humans as anything but the villains of the war. The Ghosts are an advanced, peaceful race whose scientific knowledge far outshines that of humans. They have no interest in warfare, but their civilization stands in the path of humanity’s Third Expansion.

Consider the following exchange from “The Cold Sink” between a human and a Ghost ambassador which took place prior to the war:

“You see this place as a bolt-hole? What are you hiding from?”

“You,” said the Ambassador.

That took him aback.

“Jack Raoul, your Expansion is already expanding exponentially. We are in your way.”
Raoul had heard this said. The Ghosts’ home range lay between mankind and the rich fields of the Galaxy’s core, and the Expansion was pressing.

But he protested, “It’s a big Galaxy. It’s not even as if we are fighting over the same kinds of territory, or resources. Ghosts are adapted to the cold and dark, humans to deep gravity wells. There is room for all of us.”

“That is true,” said the Ambassador. “But irrelevant. Your expansion is fueled by ideology as much as by resource acquisition–and it is not an ideology that preaches of sharing.”

And the following discussion from “On the Orion Line”:

He said to me, “You see , child, as long as explorers and the mining fleets and the colony ships are pushing outwards, as long as the Third Expansion is growing, our economy works. But the system is utterly dependent on continual conquest. From virgin stars the riches can continue to flow inwards, into the older, mined-out systems, feeding a vast horde of humanity who have become more populous than the stars themselves. But as soon as that growth falters...”

Jeru was silent.

I understood some of this. This was a war of colonisation, of world-building. For a thousand years we had expanded steadily from star to star, using the resources of one system to explore, terraform and populate the worlds of the next. With too deep a break in that chain of exploitation, the enterprise broke down.

Baxter’s carefully-thought out future history is not the traditional sfnal one of mankind’s great expansion through the galaxy, exploring, colonizing and dealing with alien races as equals. Instead Baxter looks at our history, at humanity’s tendency toward greed and self-aggrandizement, and he envisions a future built on the same self-interest and arrogance. It makes for a thoughtful series of stories, but what it does not lend itself to is great heroes of the type found in the future history of, say, Poul Anderson, whose Nicholas Van Rijn is positively heroic by comparison.

After the war with the Ghosts ends, the human expansion continues, eventually bringing them into conflict with the Xeelee, a much older and more powerful race. In fact, the title of the book’s last section The Fall of Mankind gives some indication of how this war will ultimately end.
When I began reading Resplendent, in the back of my head was the image of Poul Anderson and his future histories about the Polesotechnic League and its successor Terran Empire. But as I got further into the book, I saw familiarities to another hard science fiction writer one generation later than Anderson, that being Larry Niven’s Known Space series. This image became most glaring when I reached “Lakes of Light” and its image of a spherical world enclosing a group of suns where life exists on the outside surface of the sphere. This was a truly wondrous concept akin to Niven’s Ringworld, and Baxter carries it off very well.

Baxter is very fond of wondrous images of the future, and one of his best are the giant Spline, living spaceships which early on co-exist with humans before becoming totally subservient to them in later millennia. These creatures are explored in depth in “Breeding Ground,” in which a group of survivors of a space battle are trapped inside one of the giant creatures as it returns to its home world.

For me, Resplendent reaches its peak in “The Chop Line,” a story set in 20,424 A.D. in the midst of the war with the Xeelee when it has entered a new phase involving time slips. The point of view character is a young female ensign on a Spline which has rescued another battered Spline which turns out to be one which is not even in military service yet at the time of the story, but will be two decades in the future. The wounded ship has engaged in a battle which, at the moment of its defeat, somehow slipped through time into the past. The ensign is stunned to recognize the ship’s captain whose “face seemed oddly reversed, as if she was a mirror image of what I was used to.”

One of the story’s finest scenes is when the captain is showing her younger self the injured Spline:

I knew where I was. “This is the hyperdrive chamber.”

“Yes.” She reached up and stroked fibres. “Magnificent, isn’t it? I remember when I first saw a Spline hyperdrive muscle–“

”Of course you remember.”

“What?”

“Because it’s now. This is my first time seeing this. And I’m you.” Some day, I thought gloomily, I would inevitably find myself standing on the other side of this room, looking back at my own face.

It seems that in engaging in the battle which inflicted grievous injury on a Xeelee site as well as on the ship itself, the captain had violated a retreat order to do so. And now the navy was ordering the captain to be placed under inquiry, with her prosecuting advocate the young ensign destined to grow into her in twenty years.

“The Chop Line” is the most thought-provoking story in the book, partly for its insight into future paradoxes, but mostly for its glimpse at the logic of warfare in which both sides have the ability to forecast future scenarios and probabilities. Consider the following exchange in which one character learns that he is destined to die on the ship returning from battle into the past:

Tarco said apprehensively, “Sir, please–what about me?”

Gravely, Dakk handed him a data disk.

“Hey, buttface,” he said, reading. “You make me your exec. How about that. Maybe it was a bad year in the draft.”

I didn’t feel like laughing. “Read it all.”

“I know what it says.” His broad face was relaxed.

“You don’t make it home. That’s what it says, doesn’t it? You’re going to die out there, in the Fog.”

He actually smiled. “I’ve been anticipating this since the Torch came into port. Haven’t you?”

My mouth opened and closed, as if I was a swordtail fish in the belly of a Spline. “Call me unimaginative,” I said. “How can you accept this assignment, knowing it’s going to kill you?”

He seemed puzzled. “What else would I do?”

“The Chop Line” illustrates most of what I believe great science fiction should be: while simultaneously exploring a fully-realized future world involving believable, thinking human beings, it raises questions which need to be answered both by the story’s characters and also by the reader as well. It is the highlight of this entire book, and certainly one of my favorite sf stories of the current decade.

“Riding the Rock” illustrates several of Stephen Baxter’s philosophical premises for the entire Xeelee sequence: the importance of means versus ends, the natural conflict between devotion to the doctrine of human expansion and the need to balance practicality with philosophy. This story takes place during the war against the Xeelee, on the farthest edge of human expansion, away from the decision-making centers, where absolute control is necessarily more flexible, especially since all the humans in this region, whether soldiers or settlers from the previous Second Expansion, are fodder for the war against the enemy. Read the following explanation from one of the Commissaries visiting that edge:

“Ideally all human beings, across the Galaxy, would think exactly the same thought at every moment; that is what we must ultimately strive for. But out here on the fringe of the Expansion, where resources are limited, things are–looser. The three million inhabitants here have been left to their own devices–such as their own peculiar form of government, which lapsed into a kind of monarchy. The war against the Xeelee is a priority over cleansing the minds of a few fisher-folk on a dirt ball like this.”

“Riding the Rock” also illustrates the horrors of war in the needs for regimentation and preparing children as part of the totalitarian machine:

“Even in the face of violence a child’s social and moral concepts are surprisingly resilient; it takes a year or more before such things as family bonds are finally broken. After that the child crosses an inner threshold. Her sense of loyalty–why, her sense of self–becomes entwined not with he family but with the regime. And, of course, the first experience of combat itself is the final threshold. After that, with all she has seen and done, she cannot go home. She has been reborn. She doesn’t even want to be anywhere else.

This is a chilling story in its depiction of total devotion to war, even a war which Baxter reminds us from story to story is meaningless both in its causes and in its ultimate goals.

“Mayflower II” is a story I reviewed when it appeared in Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels 2005. I said about it then,

“Mayflower II” is the story of a generation ship, but it takes a different approach than most stories of that particular sub-genre usually do. It is the story of the movers and shakers of the ship and how they try to protect the ultimate goal of the ship against the inevitable degeneration of the ship’s populace over the millennia. We watch the society alter, and the very intellectual level of the people erode, as the near-immortal protagonist himself watches it, knowing he is largely helpless to do anything about it, yet still make whatever small nudges he can to maintain the ship’s goal. A strong, interesting, thoughtful story, which probably would have benefitted from being longer and somewhat more in-depth.

“Between Worlds” was the title novella of Robert Silverberg’s original anthology of that name, which I also reviewed and said:

“Between Worlds” takes place after a galactic war when a virtual representation of a thousand year old messiah becomes a negotiator with a war refugee who sneaked a bomb onto a spacecraft, demanding that she be returned to her homeworld to see a daughter who, according to all records, never existed. Baxter ranks with Alastair Reynolds as the best storytellers among the newer hard-science writers, and this is a strong story from him. The story contains enough strangeness to feel futuristic, including spiked, intelligent ships such as the strangely-named Ask Politely, climaxed by the huge swarming of ships.

The characters are also fascinating, especially the virtual Poole and Futurity’s Dream, the religious acolyte who is the main viewpoint character of the story. Like the Silverberg story, the climax is both unexpected but believable.

The last story in the book, “The Siege of Earth,” is a fitting coda for the entire Xeelee series. Set one million years in the future, it shows the final attempt by the ancient Pharaohs to save Earth from their relentless enemies. Not so much story as a travelogue, it brings a fitting symmetry to the series as it relates back to the earliest stories in it.

Overall, Resplendent is one of the finest single-author collections I have ever read. It offers most of what I expect in great science fiction but find far too seldom: a well-developed future history, a creative vision vast in scope yet grounded in well-developed stories based on human interest. There are some minor weaknesses. The writing is satisfactory, if not exciting itself, and the characterization does tend to a bit of sameness (for example, many of the stories feature naive young protagonists barely out of their teens struggling against older, rigid leaders). But the incredible ideas and their development make the entire series, and most of the stories, absolutely splendid.

What makes this collection even more exciting is that it is actually a framework for Stephen Baxter’s Destiny’s Children trilogy, whose three novels explore the same future history by filling in different segments of the future than these stories do. I am anxious to read that trilogy now, and hope that my high aspirations for it–expecting it to be even better than Alastair Reynold’s Conjoiners-Inhibitors trilogy–do not set a bar which is impossible to achieve. But the thrill of finding that out should be joyous indeed.

1 Comments:

  • Nice review. I'm a big fan of Baxter work, and have read most of it. I've got a copy of Resplendent (thanks to Amazon UK), but have yet to read it. I'm bad about reading short works now, since there's so many novels on my to read pile. I've read a couple of the works in this collection in other places, but really looking forward to some of the new (to me) ones.

    Enjoy your blog, and hope you keep up the reviews.

    By Blogger Howard, At 7:40 AM  

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