by Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Phase Space collects twenty-five of Stephen Baxter’s short stories originally published between 1997 and 2002. Gleaned from sources as disparate as Future Histories and Analog, the stories present the broad canvas on which Baxter paints his different visions of the future and past, although none of the stories fit into his long-running Xeelee sequence.
Baxter attempts to incorporate a framing mechanism into Phase Space, however, the stories come from such a variety of sources of inspiration and are, thematically, so different, that the framing mechanism is not needed. Fortunately, it is also not intrusive and the reader can simply skip over the italicized passages which introduce many (but not all) of the sections into which the stories are divided. Readers are better served by his afterword, which explains the origins of many of the stories and provides additional insight into his creative processes.
The stories in Phase Space can often be grouped into sections which reflect on-going interests by Baxter. Alternate history is examined in “Tracks,” “The Twelfth Album,” “War Birds,” and other stories. Baxter also frequently looks at strange creatures, almost as a thought experiment to see if he can make them work. These latter stories include “Sheena 5,” “The Fubar Suit,” and “Sun-Cloud.” These grouping allow the reader to see how Baxter’s examination of related subjects has changed over time.
Traditionally, the draw of science fiction has been the “sensawundah.” Baxter fully dives into the ideas that make the reader think “wow.” These can take the form of a moon that orbits through parallel universes in “Grey Earth,” the ultimate fate of lands that have disappeared in “Lost Continent,” or the idea of contacting a dead priest who was translating Dante. While the last idea may not seem like a sensawundah idea, in “Dante Dreams,” Baxter totally captures the reader’s imagination.
Baxter’s “The Gravity Mine” is an almost Stapledonian view of the future of humanity. While Olaf Stapledon carefully plotted out every stage of human evolution in Last and First Men and depicted most of them, Baxter looks at a single individual, Anlic, and follows her as she remains the same but the universe (and humanity) evolves around her until her way of living is inconceivable to those with whom she communicates.
Some of Baxter’s more scientifically theoretical stories can be obscure. In most cases he is able to bring them a fictional sensibility which will draw in the reader and he can explain the theories he has used as inspiration to the stories in a way which makes them comprehensible.
On the whole, Phase Space provides an excellent introduction to Baxter’s writing, demonstrating his strengths and weaknesses in a variety of different types of stories. The ability to trace themes through several stories adds to the strength of the collection in a way which provides depth beyond what any of the individual stories achieve.
|Glass Earth, Inc.||Lost Continent|
|Dante Dreams||Lines of Longitude|
|Martian Autumn||The We Who Sing|
|Sun God||The Gravity Mine|
|Sheena 5||Touching Centauri|
|The Fubar Suit||The Twelfth Album|