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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: 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 Nick Gevers

Origin is the conclusion of one of the most ingeniously conceived sequences of novels SF has yet seen, a trilogy of cosmic iterations in furious revelatory dispute. The template is probably Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias series (1984-1990), which imagined three contrasting futures for the same section of California, embodied each in a novel with characters and situations mapped to those in the others, and allowed echoes to ring and dissonances to sound, all that utopia might take shape in the reader's mind. In the Manifold novels, Stephen Baxter is about a similar parallelism of scenarios, but he is too ruthless an ironist for utopia, preferring cosmological debate; and his Big Issue is the Fermi Paradox: why, in all this vast creation, are we so palpably unique in our intelligence, so horribly alone? Hypotheses are numerous; Baxter selects among them, recombines them with a characteristic grim gusto, and gives three theories each a universe or universes as playground. Out of their rivalry may emerge Truth.

Earth as we know it recurs in Time (1999), Space (2000), and now Origin. History seems to follow a set path until a mighty Twenty First Century divergence: the USA is supreme, NASA exists in some not altogether satisfactory bureaucratic form (Baxter's long-running lament), and an extremely enterprising astronaut and space advocate, Reid Malenfant, schemes exuberantly to visit other worlds (even a Near Earth Object will do). In Time there were no aliens anywhere (except some re-engineered squid), and our distant descendants, contemptuous of such barrenness, extinguished their past (and all of us with it) in favour of a bounty of sentience. Malenfant was at the forefront of Time's doomful discoveries, and, appropriately, returned, transtemporally amnesiac but flags waving, to explore the populated galaxy of Space. But that proved an unhappy place, what with human incompetence, alien superiority, and punctuated extinctions by gamma-ray burst. And so, having summarized the dubious attractions of the empty cosmos and the swarming one, Baxter proposes a third variation, one knowing and probing, one offering no simple answers. Thus Origin. Reid Malenfant, once more ignorant of his cognates, rides again.

Those distant descendants of ours, denizens of an exhausted end-time, are at work in the third Malenfant's 2015. First, a great blue circle (not the first time this symbol, a close counterpart to the monolith of 2001, has been encountered in the trilogy) appears over Olduvai, scattering hominids while it scoops up specimens of homo sapiens; then the Moon, which Baxter seems to assassinate on a regular basis in his novels, vanishes, its place taken by a much larger red satellite, which appears to be inhabited. Malenfant's wife Emma (also prominent in Time) was one of those scooped to the Red Moon; while Earth struggles with the chaos of floods and earthquakes, Malenfant persuades Washington that a mission to rescue her (well, theoretically to explore the anomaly) must go forth, with himself at the helm. It does. The mysterious Japanese woman, Nemoto, familiar from Space, comes along; their craft reaches its destination; and, like Charlton Heston before him, Malenfant finds himself on a planet of the apes.

There's no question that Baxter is taking an immense risk in this and what follows; he is an inveterate creative gambler, however, and his enormous and often rickety structures of assumption, his repeated thumbings of his nose at the expectations of staid readers, have tended to pay off. And so it is wise to be patient as Malenfant, Emma, Nemoto, and sundry others stagger and stomp about the forests and savannas of the Red Moon, on adventures that may seem rather aimless, indeed circular, at first glance. Neanderthals and other hominid species are everywhere, flourishing in all their grimy glory, eating each other whenever lip-smacking opportunity arises; dissolute pith-helmeted quasi-Victorian Englishmen do their colonial safari turn; a risible Cromwellian Puritan with a tail bludgeons his way to a seedy jungle imperium, Kurtz with cant. All worryingly absurd? Well, perhaps. The super-intelligent teleporting gorillas are daringly imagined, but rather rum. The point however is that all these creatures and their antics are around for a purpose, the purpose of the Red Moon's post-human builders, Baxter's purpose: the study of our origins as a species, of the foundations of our tool-using intelligence, of our place in the frightening context of Fermi's Paradox.

A lot of research and keen speculation has conduced to Baxter's depictions of our possible hominid ancestors and their alternative evolutionary destinies. Humanity's origins are under constant interrogation in what is fundamentally a superb re-creation of the melting pot of prehistory; on display here are the beginnings of human socialization, the development of matriarchal power structures in reaction to masculine excess, the compartmentalization of the primitive mind, the difficult inception of the capacity for symbolic representation, and very much more. The Red Moon is a microcosm of millions of years of history, the whole awful canvas of our past anatomized as a bloody picaresque pandemonium, and in its vicious colours we recognize our ancestors and ourselves. This is what we have been, what we are, what we will, in all likelihood, be; and if textual chaos is ugly and ungainly, then so is our story, so are we. Origin is in this light a highly acute, if necessarily somewhat tentative, analysis of our most basic nature, and of the sort of universe that that nature dictates.

And so Stephen Baxter triumphs again, through that pure intellectual elan which again and again has redeemed his work in spite of its periodic clumsiness and its frequent straining of probability. Truly, truly, Arthur C. Clarke was never anywhere near as good.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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