A Painter of Immensities
An Interview with Stephen Baxter
by Nick Gevers
Probably the most visionary of the so-called "Britpack" authors who revitalised British SF from the late 1980s onwards, Stephen Baxter has matured into a dominant figure in Hard SF. His novels and stories span the cosmos with a breathtaking cognitive ease, opening up vast panoramas of scientific understanding, understanding that transforms the human species in strange exhilarating ways -- or destroys it utterly.
For sheer scope, few future histories can rival that laid out in Baxter's continuing Xeelee Sequence, made up thus far of Raft (1991), Timelike Infinity (1993), Flux (1993), Ring (1994), and Vacuum Diagrams (1997), as well as the chapbook novella Reality Dust (2000) and various uncollected stories, such as "On The Orion Line" (2000). Having in the opening instalments of that series emulated the greatest works of Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven, to the point of overshadowing them, Baxter next turned to the oeuvre of H.G. Wells in The Time Ships (1995), a magisterial sequel to The Time Machine; he had already delivered resonant homage to Jules Verne in Anti-Ice (1993). Baxter's short stories of this period are collected in Traces (1998).
In recent years, Baxter has produced a steady succession of big blockbuster novels, all concerned to some degree with the NASA space programme and possible alternatives to it. Voyage (1996) is the story of how the Americans might after all have gone to Mars in the 1980s; Titan (1997) is a ferocious summation of all the opportunities (like Mars) which we have missed; Moonseed (1998) suggests just how necessary it may be for us to vacate the Earth, sooner than we might think. And the Manifold Trilogy, consisting of Time (1999), Space (2000), and Origin (2001), provides a rather awesome estimation of the place of humanity in an empty universe -- or a very full one.
Other projects by Baxter include: the Mammoth Trilogy -- Silverhair (1998), Longtusk (1999), and Icebones (2001); a bestselling collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, The Light of Other Days (2000); and an intriguing non-fiction conspectus of long-term human destinies, Deep Future (Orion, January 2001).
I interviewed Stephen Baxter by e-mail in November 2000.
NG: Reading just about any of your major works, one is struck -- even overwhelmed -- by the vast, the cosmic, range of your imagination and concerns. It's a cliché by now to compare you with Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke, but you have certainly inherited their command of scale, and more. What influences and considerations have drawn you so consistently to limn the immensities of space and time?
SB: After being drawn to SF and the future as a kid by the likes of Gerry Anderson, I grew up with Wells and Clarke (I came to Stapledon a bit later). I was always struck by visions of the very far future, of cosmic ruin and human destiny, which is certainly what you get with Clarke. Probably something to do with my Catholic upbringing -- which is all about a universal story with a beginning and an end -- and growing up in Liverpool, a port that served an Empire that was pretty much gone before I was born. I've never been satisfied with the social clamour that fills the human world; I like thinking about how our here-and-now is just one square on a huge chessboard of possibilities (a Dick image I think).
NG: You're one of the central figures in Hard SF, both in Britain and globally. Do you think "Hard SF" is a useful and accurate label as it is presently applied? How would you define the ethos of Hard SF?
SB: I'm sure it's a useful label -- labels are there to help readers find what they like -- but whether it's accurate or not, who knows? Hard SF is an amorphous foggy slice of SF, which is itself amorphous, so how can you be accurate about that? If I had to define it I'd say Hard SF is about the allowable; you can wildly extrapolate, but you have to try to show what might be possible, one day, someplace, according to physical law. That was what drew me to read Hard SF in the first place, the notion that this was a glimpse of somewhere that might actually exist.
But I don't think there's any one ethos. All SF after all has always been a sublimation of our concerns about the present, whenever the present happens to be. And we all have different views about those concerns. You can write Hard SF about science and technology without being a one-dimensional fan of it -- see my Voyage -- you can write disaster stories in which Bruce Willis doesn't save the world -- see Moonseed -- and so on. I would say my fiction is often (not always) about the impact of our scientific understanding on us and our view of ourselves; that doesn't always mean we get to win.
NG: Your publishers like to claim that you tried to become an astronaut about a decade ago. How serious was this attempt? And how important has your direct experience of the sciences been in your development as an SF writer?
SB: I applied for the guest-cosmonaut slot on Mir offered by the Soviets maybe ten years ago, the place eventually taken by Helen Sharman. I got over a lot of hurdles -- I had the right background -- but fell because I'm not fluent in any foreign language. I've since met a lot of people who got further than me. I was quite serious in the application, and I bet I could have done the job, and given the chance would have gone like a shot (literally).
I was drawn to science and engineering through science fiction. I'm actually a chartered engineer; I did engineering research and have published articles and an academic book. But I found I was restless with "real" research; it was too narrow and specialised for me. So I worked as a teacher, and in industry in different roles. I did more research in the wider world -- I took a business degree for instance and have even written a couple of management textbooks. But all the time I was writing SF, and gradually got published, and eventually that took over my life. My science background is a big help, if I want to figure out conditions inside a neutron star for instance (as in Flux). But I wouldn't know how NASA works if I hadn't done time in big corporations like Nat West Bank, and I don't think anybody can tell human stories if they haven't had a life.
NG: Your works seem animated by a sort of grim irony, a sense that no matter how enormous the technological prowess of the human species may become, the cold, unsympathetic universe always has the last laugh. Why this jaundiced perspective on ultimate human capabilities?
SB: I get accused of pessimism sometimes because I tend to portray humans, even of the far future, as limited creatures, who never get to transcend their limitations and figure it all out; that's true in my Xeelee sequence for instance. I don't see why it's inevitable that we will be smart enough to figure out the universe's ultimate secrets; maybe there's a level of reality we can never crack (just as computer programs are now proving math theorems beyond the grasp of a human mind), and maybe we will meet (or construct) alien minds fundamentally smarter than ours (as in the Manifold books). But really that's my reading of history and the world around me, and others might disagree. And I think it's actually more interesting in terms of stories to assume we aren't the biggest fish in the pond. On the other hand, since even in the Xeelee books humanity survives at least 5 million years, I could also claim to be an optimist. So it goes.
NG: Speaking of the Xeelee Sequence: that was your first major undertaking, five volumes long and counting, because you're still adding to it. How did you conceive this sprawling future history? And what new directions is it taking?
SB: Like a lot of writers' future histories, I think, it grew organically. My first published story, "The Xeelee Flower", was a straightforward predicament story in which I needed powerful off-stage aliens -- hence the Xeelee. I worked on a story a little later called "Shell" about humans surviving in a kind of cage after a vast defeat by more powerful off-stage aliens -- and it occurred to me that if I made the aliens the same, I had the beginning and the end of a vast epic storyline. I was still learning my way, so having this outline future history as a prop was a big help, in providing frames for the stories and novels that followed -- a common vocabulary, technology, political history, even recurring characters.
By the time of Vacuum Diagrams, which is a fixup of the stories, including "The Xeelee Flower", I had mapped out the shape of the timeline, particularly the beginning and end, and after five books I put it aside for a while. But I was always aware that there was a whole chunk of the history in the middle which I'd always found interesting, but wasn't sure how to handle. I call this "The Third Expansion", in which humanity, tired of being overwhelmed by superior forces, begins to battle its way to a certain supremacy, making many sacrifices in the process -- but in the end we become engaged in a 100,000-year war against the Xeelee, a war that ends up shaping our very evolution. (Raft and Flux are set in this period.) So now I'm working on short fiction to feel my way through this period, and am planning longer works concerned with the turning point of the war.
NG: The Xeelee novels and stories feature, alongside their gigantic space-time vistas and astonishing weight of concept, some elements that read like recursive homages to the conventions of the SF of the pulp magazine era -- for example, invasions of Earth by aliens called the Qax and the Squeem. When you write extravagant space operas like Flux and Ring, how much allusive irony do you consciously employ?
SB: Basically I try not to employ irony, allusive or recursive or otherwise, just as I try to keep out of the forefront of my mind all the levels of metaphor that come with any piece of fiction. I try to get fully immersed in the fiction; I'm not interested in writing elaborate jokes. I'm just trying to tell as compelling and honest a story as I can, with the tools I have at my disposal. It's no surprise though that certain themes crop up, such as encounters with powerful and exotic alien life forms, because they are the source of such good stories. But I'm too young to remember (or have been influenced by) the pulps!
NG: Your other earlier works include two steampunk novels, one of them a very successful long sequel to Wells' The Time Machine. What led you to these exercises in literary homage?
SB: I've written a number of alternate-history stories, and the novel Anti-Ice. It all depends on the idea. I was led to Anti-Ice by speculations about anti-matter comets whizzing through the solar system. It occurred to me that (with a little tweaking) such stuff could have provided a power source for cultures in our past. I mused about the Romans (or maybe Carthaginians) with steam engines and the like. But I came back to the Victorians because they knew the rest of how to build a spaceship, such as recycling the air; they were actually making submarines. And you can't write a novel about superscience Victorians without a nod back to Verne! So I suppose Anti-Ice was on one level a homage.
But in writing alternate history I'm more interested in the exploration of history than in literary homages. And of course Anti-Ice was basically a 1990s novel about 1990s concerns. Victorian Britain, armed with ICBMs and spaceships, is the only superpower, and has to decide whether to intervene in its neighbours' messy disputes -- just as the West faces similar dilemmas now. The ending of that book is pretty dark; technology is always a double-edged sword.
The Time Ships was different. I had an idea for a large-scale history-changing novel, an escalation of changes, colonies forging deeper into the past, generating new realities, reaching all the way back to the Big Bang. But given such a complicated background I knew I needed a straightforward frame to tell the story. And I hit on the idea of doing a sequel to The Time Machine. I'd always remembered that that book, a big favourite of mine, finished on a hook for more stories, as the Time Traveller disappears on his momentous second journey into the future. And I knew that the centenary of the book's publication was coming up. So it seemed an excellent opportunity to put all this together.
And once I was working with Wells, so to speak, the project took a different course, as I began digging into the concerns and themes of Wells in 1895. Much of this has resonance for our times, of course. Again I suppose on one level you could call this a homage to Wells -- it is after all a sequel -- but in places I think I'm pretty tough on him; I have him (or anyhow his Time Traveller) confront some of the less welcome outcomes of what Wells campaigned for -- notably the scientific planning of societies by non-democratic elites.
I've done more alternate-history stuff since; it all depends on the idea, the story, and how it has to be told. But to be honest if I research such a story I read more history than period fiction, and that's usually where the idea comes from in the first place; I have a feeling that fiction deriving only from fiction is a bit thin...
NG: You've been a prolific short story writer throughout your career. What continues to attract you to shorter forms, which presumably are much less lucrative than your novels?
SB: I think I'm more a natural novelist, but in some ways you can't beat the short form: the clear expression of a single new idea seems well suited to SF. Basically I write short fiction because I have ideas that suit being expressed that way. After a time I (and I suspect all writers) have learned how to "farm" ideas. I know I have certain deep obsessions and concerns, not all of them conscious, and I have interests and themes I've pursued during my career, some of which you've touched on. And as I continue to work, writing, doing research of different kinds, and generally living my life, I collect material and ideas that cluster around those central interests.
Many of those notions will go into the novels, of course, but some don't fit, or demand by their nature being worked out as a short story -- which will sometimes feed back into the novels. It's all kind of lateral and organic. When working on Voyage, which is about the space programme's past, I mused on the fate of the 12 Apollo Moonwalkers, who are of course ageing. I wondered how it would be to be the last of the Moonwalkers, dying alone and forgotten in some desolate anti-tech future. That didn't fit Voyage, but it worked as a poignant short story called "In The MSOB" which I was very pleased with. But that notion stayed with me and fed back into the next novel, Titan. Also, on a utilitarian level, short fiction is a way of working my way into new territory -- as I did with the Manifold universe, as I'm doing with the new Xeelee material. It's much easier to work out these huge ideas by actually writing something down.
NG: Coming now to your blockbuster novels of the last few years: the successes and failures of NASA -- the glamour and the frustration of the American space programme -- loom large in all of these books. You seem profoundly ambivalent about NASA: Voyage evokes the Right Stuff very vividly, but the book implies that, after all the heroism, a manned landing on Mars would have been a prestigious dead end. Where, in your view, did the exploration of space begin to falter, and why?
SB: The best answer is probably in Voyage itself. There are lots of historical turning points -- decisions made, opportunities lost. And now NASA I'm afraid has become a sclerotic Big Organisation, locked into the Space Station project, which will generate lots of jobs but little else. It's really a waste of money, a white elephant in orbit. In fact for that amount of money you might as well orbit white elephants, and study the effects of zero G on albino pachyderms. Space travel ought to be about travel, about going somewhere.
But really Apollo itself was always a beautiful but doomed enterprise, once Wernher von Braun lost an essential early-60s argument about building a much more flexible (but more expensive) programme that could have reached beyond the Moon, all the way to Mars. Perhaps if America had got locked into that, even given the anti-technocratic mood of 1969 when the post-Apollo future was decided, they might have carried on. But by then nobody wanted to go to Mars anyhow, as it looked a lot more hostile than we used to dream.
That's the politics, but there are deeper levels to the story of course. To think that we went all the way to the Moon just to win a political argument -- to think that 12 men have actually walked on an alien world, with no prospect of ever getting back there ... You couldn't make it up! And it all had a lot of resonance for me personally (and a lot of others of my age). I was 11 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, so I went through my adolescence as everything wound down in the 1970s. Being as egocentric as the next person it all tied together for me, and for a long time space travel came to seem to me a childish dream I had to put aside as I faced the harsh 70s reality of the 3-day week, O-levels and the Osmonds. So it all meant a lot to me, even the wind-down in its way.
NG: Titan is one of the bleakest SF novels of recent years, and not only because it features the extinction of humanity. Did you construct Titan as a catalogue of everything that could go wrong in the coming decades, and, more deeply, as an indictment of all the intellectual blindness humanity is heir to?
SB: I was once shocked at a book launch when that fine writer Ian Watson opined that humanity is a mad species driven by fever dreams and illusions. I'm a little older now and have learned a little more, and have come to conclude he was basically right. So having worked through Voyage, and having done all my research on Apollo and the Cold War, in Titan I pushed it all into the future, postulating a new and equally mad space programme predicated by a new Cold War, between the US and China, which eventually becomes hot. Just as we might have reached the Moon while blowing ourselves up down here. And for what? Titan is dark but it's a pretty angry book, I think; I may have this core belief that we are a flawed and limited species, but that doesn't mean we have to throw ourselves under every oncoming truck.
NG: Moonseed is a rather more optimistic book than Titan, but only in relative terms: the Earth is still destroyed, by a kind of matter plague from the Moon. Why are you so consistently fascinated with the Moon (rather than, say, Mars)? Why does it so often figure as a source of destructive energies in your works -- in Anti-Ice, Moonseed, "The Ant-Men of Tibet"...?
SB: I suppose that having grown up with Apollo I've always been fascinated by the Moon. I was a (lousy) amateur astronomer and used to gaze at the craters and mountains; and during the Apollo days the Moon opened up as a world really for the first time. Now we have learned that the Moon's presence may have been central in creating humanity, thanks to stabilising the Earth's spin and creating tides, and that it was budded off the Earth in a giant interplanetary impact, about the most dramatic event you can conceive, and it happened here! I think we take the Moon for granted. It is after all a whole alien world whose features you can see with the naked eye; if Mercury, say, was suddenly towed into orbit around Earth it would be the biggest event in history. So I suppose I'm trying to give the Moon the role it deserves, whether for good or ill; I keep on doing it in the Manifold books too.
NG: The Mammoth books -- one of your two recent trilogies -- are at least superficially a departure for you: novels told from the perspective of the eponymous animals; yet they are really a further medium for your speculations on time and evolution, aren't they?
SB: Yep. I was set on this idea by recent speculation that mammoths (dwarfed) may have survived on islands, off Siberia and California, protected from climate change and human hunters. I had the notion of telling their story, from their own point of view. But as I learned more about mammoths and their close relatives the elephants, the more I realised what fascinating and different creatures they are, or were -- with a whole different sensorium and experience of the world from ours -- and their take on the history of the world would be sure to be a lot different.
I also changed my views I think about mankind and ecology; a mammoth hunt is very different if you look at it from the mammoths' point of view. I don't know if I'd call myself a Green. And the evidence is still confusing about how much, for example, human hunting contributed to the extinction of the mammoths. But for sure an ecology consisting of a single species is not going to be viable; if we were smart enough we would embrace biodiversity because that's the only way to ensure the stability of the ecosystem that we rely on. And what a tragedy that there are no more mammoths; once they're gone they're gone, and we'll never know what they were really like. I can't bear the thought that our closest relatives the chimps might be driven into extinction in the wild in my lifetime, before we've really figured out what they are really like. Even if we survive future philosophers might have a tough time figuring out our place in the universe if our closest surviving relative is a blue-green algae.
NG: Your now complete Manifold series seems like your most ambitious project thus far, as evidenced by the volumes' sweeping titles: Time, Space, Origin. Is the sequence conceived as a complete fictional summary of the trends inferred by contemporary cosmology?
SB: This series is really about the Fermi Paradox. If the aliens existed, they would be here. This has become one of my obsessions the more I've thought about it, drawing in all the other stuff such as cosmology. It really doesn't make sense that life got started here -- apparently spontaneously, and then spread as far as it could, producing us, who have already walked on another world and made enough noise to waken half the Galaxy (literally) -- but nowhere else. But that seems to be the truth.
The sky remains silent. Earth shows no signs of tampering in the past. The stars show no evidence of modification. And so on. But the universe is old enough for a thousand colonisation waves to have washed over us by now. This is really a deep paradox -- something is wrong with the way we are looking at ourselves and/or the universe -- and I'd predict that by 2100, say, the unravelling of the paradox will have taught us an awful lot; paradoxes are how science advances.
Manifold is about different possible resolutions of Fermi. In Time, we are indeed alone -- maybe the strangest notion of all. And we figure out our destiny and responsibility, which is mainly not to blow ourselves up. In Space the aliens suddenly show up. But then the mystery is -- why here? Why now? How come we didn't see them before? It turns out the universe is a pretty lethal place, and we have to figure out, with our cousins, how to survive. And in Origin there is a more paranoid explanation...
NG: While reading your futurological prospectus Deep Future, I constantly felt a sense of recognition: here was the hard scientific thinking directly informing so much of your fiction writing. In addition to being a work of persuasive "Popular Science", is Deep Future in a way your notebook made public, a guide to the wellsprings of your creative inspiration?
SB: My heart is always going to be in SF. But I've always found that people I've met at literary events, etc, are just as interested in talking about the science -- the future, other worlds, etc. -- as the fiction. So over the years I've gathered material, published in various outlets as essays or talks, on what the "real" future might be holding for us, to inform conversations like that. (Of course it all feeds back to my fiction.)
I've come to realise that although the outlines of the near future are very uncertain, the farther future -- when the stars die and the universe starts to cool down -- is on large scales possible to predict, because life, if it survives, will be hemmed in by physical laws. But on the other hand over the last few decades the scientists have speculated on ways we might be able to survive for an indefinitely long time into the future -- although it will take a lot of engineering to do it, and our descendants won't be much like us. So that's the theme of the book, our modern vision of the future, spanning the near future to the furthest we can see. And it is a kind of offshoot of the thinking and research I've been doing over the last ten years or more, a different expression of the same obsessions.
NG: Still on Deep Future: looking at the state of the world now -- in late 2000 -- do you think there is truly much hope of the clarion call to go back to space being heeded at last? Which way is the balance of human destiny tending?
SB: I think we're at a key moment. We're clearly smart enough to trash the planet; will we be smart enough not to? Right now we have the resources to save ourselves and the world -- space resources could help -- but that won't last forever. If we get it wrong over the next few decades our descendants, if there are any, might not forgive us. I'm actually quite optimistic. We're a lot more aware of the wider issues, of spaceship Earth, than we used to be. But we're still just as mad as ever, and after all we haven't evolved to think very far ahead.
NG: Finally: what lies ahead for you, now that the Manifold and Mammoth books are done? Are further projects taking shape in your mind?
SB: I'm planning some work on human evolution. If I had one wish it would be to meet a Neandertal. How would it be to meet beings as close as that, and yet clearly quite different, in every way they lived their lives? In the longer term, more Xeelee universe material.
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© Nick Gevers 4 August 2001