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Stephen Baxter
Del Rey, 488 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: Exultant
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

When it comes to humanity, Stephen Baxter likes to take the long view. Concluding the sequence begun in Confluence and continued in Exultant, Transcendent is set millennia after the events depicted in Exultant, tens of thousands of years after the centralized government that was necessary for the conquest of the Milky Way has broken down into many cultures, each pursuing its own evolutionary path. Alia is a young woman in that distant future, just coming of age in her generation-ship home. Her life changes when a visiting stranger informs her that she has been chosen to become part of the Transcendence.

The Transcendence is a group mind that is close to achieving maturity when Alia is contacted. It sees itself as the fulfillment of human evolution, and while the Transcendence is in many ways beyond human comprehension, it has a problem that may be a fatal flaw. The Transcendence is filled with remorse for the pain and suffering endured by human beings throughout their long history.

Heavy stuff, and, indeed, the overall tone of Transcendent is very serious, there is not a lot of levity to break up the discussion of serious issues. And Baxter has more than one issue in mind. The story of Transcendent goes back and forth between Alia's time and our own near-future, where Michael Poole is looking for a way to prevent an environmental disaster that dwarfs the relatively minor doomsday scenario involving arctic melt-water and the Gulf Stream outlined in Kim Stanley Robinson's recent novel Fifty Degrees Below. The two story lines are connected by Alia, who has been Witnessing Michael Poole's life since she was a young girl. Witnessing is a product of the Transcendence's remorse, all living humans are required to Witness the life of a human from the past. The Transcendence believes that sharing and understanding the pain of another's existence will be a step in the process of achieving redemption for itself.

That's one aspect of the story that gives Transcendent its sense of gravitas. There is also an underlying tone, a kind of wistful nostalgia brought on by the feeling that we are already past the tipping point, that some kind of dramatic planetary climate change is now inevitable, and that any kind of technological solution can only be too little, too late. Stephen Baxter is not alone in this, the assumption of environmental disaster is fairly common-place in recent SF and can be found in the works of writers as different as Nancy Kress, Paul McAuley, and the previously mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson,

While he shares this view of humanity's near-future challenges with several SF writers, Baxter has a different view of the post-human future than contemporaries such as Greg Egan and Charles Stross, one that is darker and more pessimistic in its conclusions. The post-human cultures Alia encounters in her travels are generally presented as dead-ends much like the hive cultures first presented in Coalescence, human societies which have given up some of what it means to be human in order to more efficiently adapt to their environment. It's a post-human vision that is closer in spirit to H.G. Wells's morlocks than to either the uploaded personalities of Egan's future or the more playful visions of Charles Stross.

Transcendent, and the entire series it finishes, presents us with all the strength and weaknesses of Stephen Baxter as a writer. There is the long-term view, which recalls Arthur C. Clarke in his ability to invoke an era far removed from our own. Also, like Clarke, there is the mix of philosophical reflection with a myriad of ideas culled from the latest biology, physics, and astronomy.

But there is also an at times woodenness of language, and a tendency to use some characters as living info-dumps, their one purpose in the story being to occasionally enter and provide necessary exposition.

These problems of style and character are over-shadowed, though, by the immensity and depth of the ideas Baxter presents. It's that presentation of gosh wow ideas that makes Baxter an SF writer in the classic mold, and those who know his work and expect nothing less will find little to disappoint them in Transcendent.

Copyright © 2006 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a city constantly striving to transcend its neighbor city, St. Paul. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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