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Origin: Manifold 3
Stephen Baxter
HarperCollins Voyager UK, 455 pages

Origin: Manifold 3
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: Origin
SF Site Review: Longtusk and Deep Future
SF Site Review: Manifold: Space
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 Greg L. Johnson

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If Origin were a mainstream novel, it would have the words "literary experiment" written all over it. Origin is the third, and final, book in a series that began with Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space. Each book features nearly the same cast of characters, with three different versions of their history and their lives. In a mainstream novel, the author would be focusing on the depth of the characters, with the background differences used to illuminate the details of their existence.

But this is science fiction, and the point of writing three alternate histories of the same characters is not the characters themselves, but their part in examining one of the Big Questions. This time it's Fermi's Paradox, which asks the simple question, if there are other creatures in the universe like us, where are they? If there has been a technological civilization that achieved space travel, and they expanded at even a snail's pace, there is so much time that they should be everywhere. Where are they? The result is three novels that are not so much a literary experiment as they are a thought experiment, and Fermi's Paradox provides the inspiration.

Each novel posits a different solution. In Manifold: Time the answer was that we are truly alone, and that it could be a mistake. In Manifold: Space, it turned out that the other technological civilizations just hadn't got here yet, and that was not necessarily a bad thing. Finally, Origin searches for a broader answer, with speculations on the origins of the Earth, humanity, and the multitude of universes that may make up our reality.

Plus, it tells a good story. When the Red Moon suddenly appears in the sky, the lives of Reid Malenfant, Emma Stoney, and Nemoto , characters very familiar to readers of the previous two books, are changed forever. Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space, due to their vast settings, were told in an episodic manner. The story in Origin is much more cohesive, consisting of the characters adventures to and on the Red Moon, as they search for each other and the answers to what's going on. In the end, the answers are big enough and comprehensive enough to satisfy even the most hardcore reader of science fiction.

Stephen Baxter is undoubtedly the most traditional of the new generation of British SF writers. He is so traditional that even his failings are the traditional weaknesses of hard SF writers. Too often in Baxter's novels the characters seem to be there strictly to meet the demands of the story, the story doesn't help us understand the characters, the characters instead serve to explain the story. The most obvious example in Origin is two characters who seem to be included merely to be killed off in a gruesome manner, thus showing us something of life on the Red Moon. And even after three novels, Nemoto remains enigmatic, yet as a character she appears at almost all the important points in the story.

But we don't read these books for insight into the human condition, we read them to experience the ideas of a thoughtful writer presented in an entertaining manner. Origin tackles the big questions, why the universe is the way it is, and what our place in it might be, and does so with obvious zest and delight in its speculations and discoveries. That may not be what the readers of mainstream novels are looking for, but for SF fans, it's exactly the right thing. Origin is a fitting conclusion to a series that examines big ideas in cosmology and evolution as well as any science fiction being written today.

Copyright © 2001 Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson thinks that the best response to Fermi is that we just don't know enough yet to answer the question, which is why discussing it makes for good SF. His reviews also appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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