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Vacuum Diagrams
Stephen Baxter
HarperPrism Books, 374 pages

Art: Bob Eggleton
Vacuum Diagrams
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: 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

Stephen Baxter's latest work, Vacuum Diagrams, is a series of connected short stories detailing major and minor episodes in Baxter's far-reaching story of humanity's encounters with the Xeelee and other aliens over the life of the universe. It is the work of an audacious and wide-ranging imagination that sometimes finds it more difficult to concentrate on the details of character than on the grandeurs of cosmological speculation.

There is a long tradition of future histories in science fiction. From Olaf Stapledon to Heinlein and Asimov, writers as different as Cordwainer Smith and Ursula K. Le Guin have found advantages in creating an historical background against which many stories can be set. The idea's mutant offspring, the shared world anthology, threatened to dominate the 80s, but the last decade has seen a resurgence of writers creating their own future histories. Veterans like C.J. Cherryh and Gregory Benford have continued to add depth and complexity to histories they began early in their careers, and relative newcomers such as Baxter and Iain M. Banks have worked with a personal view of the future from the beginning of their science fiction careers. While Banks explores the evolution of a society over a large space in his Culture novels, Stephen Baxter sets his stories in a vast timescape: the entire twenty-billion year history of our universe.

The stories in Vacuum Diagrams range from short vignettes such as "The Switch" or "Secret History" to longer, more stand-alone pieces like "The Sun-People" and "Cilia-of-Gold."  Baxter writes mostly in the style of the traditional, straight-forward hard science fiction writer, closer to Charles Sheffield among contemporaries than the more literary styled Greg Bear. But, the writer these stories most remind me of is Larry Niven in his Tales of Known Space days. The plots are centred on puzzles involving astronomical oddities and alien artifacts, and connecting them all is the growing obsession of human beings with the activities of the Xeelee.

One thing that sets Baxter's future apart from that of most other hard SF writers is the ending, which is closer in mood to that of Stapledon's Last and First Men than the more optimistic or even transcendent scenarios that are commonly found in science fiction. While there are touches of humour in many of the stories, the overall effect is to provide a background of human futility against which is displayed the wonders of the universe and the fate of mankind. The two are not necessarily compatible.

Such a large stage can make it difficult to focus in on individuals, and that is where Baxter has some problems. Too often it seems the characters are in the story only to supply the information the reader needs to understand the solution to the problem. It's not that they are devoid of personality: it's simply that the stories are more about ideas and things than about people.

It is interesting, then, that it is over the last few stories that the collection gains its greatest emotional depth. "Shell," "The Eighth Room," and "The Baryonic Lords" tell the story of a family dealing with life on a dying world near the end of the universe. The pace slows down long enough for us to get to know the characters as people, and the result is to bring the cosmological wonders down to a human scale and allow the reader an emotional connection with events far removed from our own time and place. That's about as much as you can ask from any good work of fiction.

Copyright © 1999 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson thinks that the Great Attractor, a huge gravitational mass that plays a big part in Vacuum Diagrams, deserves a place in the Big Dumb Object Hall of Fame. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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