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Manifold: Space
Stephen Baxter
Del Rey, 455 pages

Manifold: Space
Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter was born in 1957 and was raised in Liverpool. He studied mathematics at Cambridge and got a PhD from Southampton. He worked in information technology and lives in Buckinghamshire, England. His first story, "The Xeelee Flower," was published in Interzone 19.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Longtusk
SF Site Review: Vacuum Diagrams
SF Site Review: Titan
Stephen Baxter Interview
Book Review: Ring
Book Review: Flux
Stephen Baxter Tribute Site
Stephen Baxter Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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In his Manifold trilogy, of which Manifold: Space is the second and latest installation, Stephen Baxter attempts to do nothing less than suggest humanity's paradoxically puny, yet perhaps unique role, in the nature of the universe. Specifically, Baxter cleverly postulates an answer to the question posed by Nobel physicist Enrico Fermi concerning the possibility of other life forms elsewhere in the cosmos: "If they existed, they would be here." What's particularly neat about Baxter's approach is how it subverts the traditional space opera conceit of galaxies just sitting out there waiting for human colonization. At the same time, just as it thoroughly belittles egocentric human notions about our importance in an incredibly vast and uncaring reality, it embraces our sense of individuality and purpose as possibly an underlying, maybe even defining, principle of cosmological sentience. (If this is where a man of science like Baxter gets a bit irrationally sentimental, hey... you can't blame him, after all he's only human.)

Of course, explaining the actual workings of the universe and their philosophical implications is tough ground to cover, so Baxter can be forgiven for relegating the human characters here to mostly backdrop props for the larger metaphor unfolding over the course of 70 centuries. (Interestingly, portions of the book that are notable exceptions to this first appeared, in different versions, as short stories, both of which were recognized by Gardner Dozois as The Year's Best of Science Fiction selections in the 16th and 17th volumes. The first, originally published as "Saddlepoint: Roughneck" in the late SF Age, concerns a super-confident entrepreneur who cuts more than a few corners to successfully transform the Moon to improve the future prospects of a human colony cut-off from a self-destructing Earth. The other is a bittersweet Bradburian-like tale about the radical extremes the descendants of the very same Moon colony must resort to as their only hope to save the species, first published as "People Came from Earth" in the anthology, Moon Shots.)

Even the protagonist, ex-astronaut Reid Malenfant (great name, by the way), who played the Heinlein hero in the previous Manifold: Time, is here reduced from a man who makes things happen to a man to whom things happen -- although those things are singularly transcendent. (Also by the way, while Manifold: Time introduces parallel universes in which the same characters endure varying fates in facing similar circumstances, and thus Manifold: Space could be considered just one of those universes very much different from what we read about in the first book, you don't necessarily need to have read one before the other. Although, that might change with the completion of the trilogy.)

Indeed, Malenfant doesn't really have much to do here besides endure a tour of the universe conducted by the Gaijin, a robotic species whose first contact with humans provides a means to travel throughout the galaxy. It also provides the life-extending qualities for Malenfant and other key characters to survive over the centuries. His journey and unknown whereabouts attain a mythic status, which serves as the justification for the devious efforts of Nemoto, who first uncovered the presence of the alien race, to determine what she feels are the more malevolent intentions of the Gaijin. As is often the case with human suspicions, the reality turns out to be a bit more complex. And disturbing. Even when, towards the end of the book, Malenfant actually gets the chance to act, as opposed to observe, in visiting an Earth centuries in the future that has reverted to a primitive aboriginal existence, it's not particularly engaging. That's because Baxter has higher sights than human circumstances, as you might gather from passages such as this:

Above them, a ceiling of curdled light spanned the sky. It was a galaxy.

It was a disc of stars, flatter and thinner than she might have expected, in proportion to its width no thicker than a few sheets of paper. She thought she could see strata in that disc, layers of structure, a central sheet of swarming blue stars and dust lanes sandwiched between dimmer, older stars. The core, bulging out of the plane of the disc like an egg yolk, was a compact mass of yellowish light, but it was not spherical, rather markedly elliptical. The spiral arms were fragmented. They were a delicate blue laced with ruby-red nebulae and the blue-white blaze of individual stars -- a granularity of light -- and with dark lanes traced between each arm. She saw scattered flashes of light, blasters of gas. Perhaps those were supernova explosions, creating bubbles of hot plasma hundreds of light years across.

Now, on the one hand, that's pretty vivid prose. On the other hand, it borders on a Carl Sagan lecture which gets someone like me antsy for the story itself to start up again. That said, and while I found Manifold: Time overall to be a better "read," this is a book anyone with a serious interest in the SF genre needs to read. Hell, anyone who ever found college Philosophy interesting. Because Baxter takes on the big questions that humanity began formulating about the time we branched away from the Neanderthals (who make an appearance here as a genetically engineered recovered species). Namely, not only why are we here and are we the only ones here, but is anyone responsible for it? Not exactly the version you'd hear from the parish priest, but there's definitely a sense of secular religious-like awe that people who spend a long time mapping celestial mechanics often develop. I think the comparison here is to Olaf Stapledon's Starmaker, although in many respects Baxter's scope of vision is broader, more complex, and even more humbling. The conclusion points to a further quest of an almost religious nature, perhaps the subject of the forthcoming Manifold: Origin, the concluding volume of the trilogy. And if it's not, perhaps Baxter is suggesting that contemplation of the universe is unlikely ever to result in definite conclusions, no matter how many centuries pass. No matter how far scientific understanding advances, metaphysical considerations remain. In either event, I, for one, am very interested to see where Reid Malenfant stops next on this breathtaking journey.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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