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Stephen Baxter
Gollancz / Del Rey, 490 pages

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: Coalescent
SF Site Review: Phase Space
SF Site Review: Reality Dust
SF Site Review: The Time Ships
SF Site Review: Origin
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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

In Exultant, Stephen Baxter returns to the history-of-the-universe-spanning story of conflict between humanity and the Xeelee that has been the subject matter of much of his best work. Nominally a sequel to Coalescent, Exultant tells the story of the climax of a twenty-five thousand year long war, and the final human assault on the Xeelee stronghold at the center of the galaxy.

It's a war that is being fought by children. The economics and logistics of war have led to fast-breeding, fast-maturing humans whose brief, fierce lives are completely devoted to fighting the good fight. When a time-travel paradox disrupts the life of Pirius, a young pilot, his military career is thrown into the hands of Commissary Nilis, a bureaucrat with a radical plan to end the war.

As readers of Baxter would expect, Exultant is packed full of astronomical wonders and cosmological speculations. The Xeelee stories are solidly in the SF tradition of large-scale dramas with deep, complicated historical backgrounds. Baxter excels at this sort of thing, and the enjoyment of reading a book like Exultant lies in the fun of playing with big ideas on a grand scale.

What tends to get lost are the smaller details that fill in and bring alive a human character. Baxter's characters are drawn well enough to interest us in following their story, but even the main characters function mostly as place-markers, a means of establishing where the story is at any one time. They are important for their place in the setting and the story, and not so much as personalities in and of themselves.

And Baxter can write characters when he wants to. Coalescent is a fine example of a character-driven hard science fiction novel, where the people are at least as important as their ideas. It's curious, then, that the ending of Coalescent combined with the philosophy of Exultant nearly amounts to a repudiation of this approach, it's hard not to lean towards the conclusion that the author himself would rather work with ideas than people.

Exultant works because the ideas it presents are interesting and full of wonder, and they're presented as part of an entertaining story. But in a year when writers like M. John Harrison, Charles Stross, and others have shown that you can have large-scale space-opera and intimate, in-depth characterization, it's hard not to consider what Exultant might have been; a novel that combined the best of Stephen Baxter's astronomical imagination with the kind of characters that he showed us he could create in Coalescent.

Copyright © 2005 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson enjoys living in a universe where every anomalous galactic phenomena is the work of some alien intelligence. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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