A collection of stories from the late great Arthur C. Clarke. It is difficult to write a consistent review since the variation in tone, content and length is so large. Some are whimsical, some are epic. Some are short and some are long. Almost all showcase Mr. Clarke’s skill in instilling a sense of wonder. The collaboration with Stephen Baxter, about a world where teleportation is commonplace, was particularly thought-provoking.
The Medusa Chronicles – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds
In this authorized sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s novella AÂ MeetingÂ withÂ Medusa, Mr. Baxter and Mr. Reynolds explore what happens to Howard Falcon after his fateful adventure in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter.
Back in the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race, an asteroid on a collision course with Earth is discovered. This dramatically changes the course of history, as international cooperation is required to deflect it. In turn, this leads to a golden age of space exploration. Machine intelligence is explored, but the machines eventually rebel against their masters, leading to centuries of conflict.
This is indeed a chronicle, as Falcon finds himself the often unwilling puppet of great powers during pivotal historic events. The authors pay homage to Mr. Clarke’s “sense of wonder” style, but adapt it to more modern readers. The naked technological optimism displayed in Clarke’s works, more typical of the mid 20th Century, is still there, but not without dark sides. The ending also has clear thematic and tonal similarities to 2001 and 2010.
Time’s Eye – Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter
Like 2001 and it’s sequels, “Time’s Eye” is driven by the intervention in human affairs by unknowable and very powerful alien beings. In a flash, the Earth is divided up in chunks from different times. A UN helicopter crew from 2037, a British Colonial detachment in Afghanistan, the armies of Alexander the great and Genghis Khan are all shoved together onto the same Earth, in the same general area. Overlooking these humans and their reactions to the discontinuity are reflecting spheres hovering above the ground, inscrutable and silent.
While there is some focus on attempting to solve the mystery of the events which have brought the protagonists to this, the main thrust of the story is rather typical alternate history fare, much like 1632 or Island in the Sea of Time. Frankly this aspect has been done better. I did find, however, that Clarke and Baxter manage to infuse the characters with a sense of their place in time and space. Unlike many other alternate history stories, this one does not revel in, or lose itself in, the practicalities of the events. Sure, the “modern” humans introduce the stirrup and steam engines, but unlike with Stirling (who, to be fair, I much enjoy reading) the alternate history angle does not seem to be the actual point.
Time’s eye shows hints of what the superhuman beings behind the “Eyes” are actually doing. It is cruel indeed, but seen as necessary. So do the means really justify the ends?
Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space – Stephen Baxter
Manifold is not a series per se, but rather different explorations of the theme “Are we alone in the universe?”. In “Time”, a portal is discovered in the solar system, and some fascinating stuff happens related to preserving life and intelligence in the long term. In “Space”, The Fermi Paradox is suddenly reversed, with aliens appearing everywhere and the whole universe is just one big fight for resources, to the point of utter barbarism.
I had some nasty nightmares after these, which is why I will probably never read the third book, “Manifold: Origin”. On a certain level, this is very stuff, but not like a horror movie. It scares me on a very deep level that I can’t rationalize away. The same level that knows that the goody two-shoes future of Star Trek simply is not a realistic vision. Still, I would rather watch Star Trek since I don’t want to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, however good Baxter is. Read the books if you feel you can take it. They are very good and the themes and subjects are both engrossing and fascinating.
Moonseed – Stephen Baxter
This novel starts off rather slowly and without fanfare, with our hero moving to Edinburgh to work on a moon rock. This moon rock is taken out of the lab and lost. It slowly starts to devour the landscape. Weird premise, but Baxter does it well. It’s all about how the humans of today would cope with the Earth literally disappearing under them.
I very much enjoyed how the novel starts small and events snowball into a massive cataclysm by the end. Well worth a look.
Anti-Ice – Stephen Baxter
Steam Age SciFi from Baxter. In the 19th Century, the British discover a pile of stuff in the Antarctic. This stuff releases fabulous quantities of energy when it comes into contact with other stuff. A whole transportation economy develops based on the so-called Anti-Ice. And there is a mission to the moon. Fun!
The Time Ships – Stephen Baxter
Authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’s classic novella The Time Machine. Baxter pulls it off quite well, putting his own touch on the old story. Enjoyable, especially if you like old Steam Age stuff such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Silverhair – Stephen Baxter
Titan – Stephen Baxter
Initially I thought this book was going to be rather upbeat, but the mood goes on a downward spiral towards the end. Humanity loses interest in space exploration completely. In fact the only thing to still progress is the search for shallow consumer happiness. NASA decides to go for one last hurrah and sends a one way expedition to Titan. As the years pass during the voyage, the small crew gets increasingly on each others nerves while listening from afar as humanity fades away to oblivion back on earth. The novel is powerful and moving, with there is a glimmer of hope in the end when those among us most suited for it, the voyagers and explorers, get to carry on the seed of humanity. Life goes on despite short-sighted humanity.
Flux – Stephen Baxter
As he did in Raft, Baxter plays with an idea in this novel. Heavily modified humans have colonized the mantle of a neutron star. The micro story taking up most of the novel is rather pedestrian, but the setting is magnificent. The macro story is about the fulfillment of a long lost purpose. Fun idea but not such a fun read.
Ring – Stephen Baxter
This is probably the most important novel in the “early Baxter” books of the Xeelee sequence. Michael Poole has opened the universe to mankind with his wormholes. We are introduced to Lieserl, humanity’s sentient probe inside our sun. GUTships ride to the very edge of space and time. One of them carries, ark-like, the seed of humanity. Thousands of subjective years later, it arrives at the Ring, a classic BDO (Big Dumb Object) constructed as an escape hatch from the impending destruction of our universe. Big stuff, and Baxter makes it look easy. The message of hope and the importance of Life expressed here are, I think, Baxter’s greatest hallmarks. A fascinating novel indeed.
Timelike Infinity – Stephen Baxter
In this important book in Baxter’s Xeelee sequence, Michael Poole, architect of a tunnel through time, must confront what happens when the tunnel ends in a time when humanity is enslaved. Be prepared to stretch those physics and existential synapses in your brain to the limit. If you are not really into hard SciFi, you should probably give this one a pass.
Raft – Stephen Baxter
Baxter always thinks big, but his stories often revolve around small communities on the edge of the main action in his universe(s). Raft is about such a human community living in a universe where gravity is much stronger than in our universe. The ancestors of the community somehow crossed over into this universe about five hundred years prior to the action. It is a solid story of courage and determination, and the need to face one’s destiny.
The Light of Other Days – Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
This novel explores a really fascinating concept. What if technology could be developed that let us see any place in space and time, including past, present and future? Society would be transformed. Lying would be impossible.
But Clarke and Baxter take it much much further than that, and the ending is just plain incredible as, without spoiling it too much, humans can finally seek redeption for the crimes of ages past. Read this book.
Voyage – Stephen Baxter
Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.
Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.