introduction by Adam Roberts
(PS Publishing, £10.00, 88 pages, signed, numbered, limited
edition paperback; also available as signed, numbered hardback at £25.00;
published July 2004.)
(Telos, £7.99, 117 pages, paperback; also available as deluxe,
signed, numbered, limited edition hardback priced £30.00; published
A double-headed review by
always preferred Baxter as a writer of high concept, space-bound, Niven-esque
hard sf. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed his forays into other territories,
such as the super-realistic 'right-stuff' adventure Voyage or
his dabble with the scientific romance, Anti-Ice, but something
about his far-future Xeelee sequence always seems to push the
Like the aforementioned Niven and his Tales of Known Space
sequence, Baxter has constructed a rich and detailed background for
his Xeelee Future History, a tale spun over several novels and stories
and touching on a vast cornucopia of ideas and themes, yet always somehow
managing to intersect with his steadfast literary obsessions: time and
humanity, how one interacts with the other and how evolution is, in
the end, a force both uncaring and immoral. Baxter's Future History
is a tale told over thousands of years, with a stage the size of the
entire galaxy and more -- it is Asimov's Foundation in extremis;
Gibbon's Decline and Fall told in a series of brief evolutionary
It is no small feat then that Baxter's latest instalment in the Xeelee
sequence, Mayflower II, manages to encompass the entirety of
this in only 88 pages.
Picking up on his recent exploration of evolutionary themes in 2003's
Coalescent, Baxter here takes the now standard genre trope of
the 'generation starship story' and moulds it into something entirely
The story begins with a lottery, of sorts, a personnel selection process
based on genetic profile and specialist scientific knowledge. Port Sol,
a small planetesimal on the outer edges of the Solar System, is about
to be destroyed by a wave of 'Coalition' forces extending outward from
the centre, purging the human colonies as it goes. The human race is
emerging from a long period under alien occupation and the newly freed
Coalition have become radicals, fundamentalists, keen to scour away
any trace of the alien Qax, including any humans who are seen to have
'collaborated' with them. However, the ancient, near-immortal 'Pharaohs'
who govern Port Sol (a ruling class of humans who have been treated
with alien life-enhancing drugs) have devised a means of escape; five
generation starships that will set sail, with a carefully selected cross
section of the populace, for the outer reaches of the galaxy.
So it is that our protagonist, a nanotechnology specialist named Rusel,
finds himself aboard one of these vessels just as the Coalition forces
converge on Port Sol.
What follows is an odyssey of life itself; a story told from the millennia-long
perspective of the very genes that drive Rusel and the human crew of
the vessel to survive; the need for life to simply exist, in any form,
even under the most harsh and difficult conditions.
Time passes aboard The Ship. Rusel proves himself to the governing
council of the vessel, and is invited to begin a course of drug therapy
that will extend his life indefinitely. He accepts, and as the people
all around Rusel begin to age and die, replaced by their children and,
later, grandchildren, we see time passing through Rusel's eyes, adopting
a new perspective that encompasses thousands of years at a time. Baxter
writes this with grace and style; short chapters of the novella pass
easily as thousands of years disappear, The Ship moving ever forwards
towards its unseen goal, Rusel slowly changing as the years wear away
at his mortal perspective.
Eventually Rusel sacrifices his own life, his own sense of individuality,
to adopt the wider sociological perspective needed to guide the imprisoned
human beings on how best to survive this difficult mission through the
stars. They follow him and his few remaining peers with devotion.
Soon enough, in evolutionary terms, the later generations of passengers
have forgotten they are on a starship altogether (although, with a knowing
wink Baxter has already told us that this is expected to happen; science
fiction is, as we know, a genre in dialogue with itself and Baxter cheekily
references his predecessors in this milieu when he has his Pharaoh state
'There will be no conceptual breakthroughs on my watch!'). They develop
a religion based around the remaining council of elders -- the ancient
Pharaoh and her select crew, including Rusel. Baxter here introduces
further concepts into his story; like he so ably does in Coalescent,
he deconstructs religion, questioning whether worship itself is simply
a stage in the evolutionary process, a rising to power of the few over
the many. This is executed with sensitivity, however; like Rusel--or
indeed the evolutionary process he describes--Baxter never passes judgement;
he simply shows what is and could be.
Eventually the humans onboard devolve into two camps -- recalling,
vaguely, Wells's Eloi and Morlocks; vacant tribal survivors who live
only for their young, and base ape-like animals with cannibalistic tendencies
that both appal and intrigue Rusel, now the lone survivor of the council
of elders and by this time a sentient component of the very ship itself.
Twenty-five millennia have passed, and we have been witness to evolution
in action, the shifting of a gene from one form to another, the persistence
of life above all else, and the slow decay of morality and intelligence;
didactics that are simply unnecessary to life in its purest form --
evolution has no need of literature or science, only biology and food.
Throughout the novella Baxter hammers this home time and again; from
the very first stages of the journey where Rusel mourns the accidental
death of a fellow colonist from Port Sol, to the eventual turning of
his cheek when the passengers aboard the ship begin offering him human
sacrifices, we see the dissolution of everything that humans hold dear.
Yet this is not a downbeat book, but strangely uplifting in the end;
life will persist, with or without us. Humans are just another stage
of the great evolutionary process, and whatever happens to us, our genes
will persist, onwards through time, like the never-ending journey of
a generation starship gliding through space. Fundamentally, Rusel understands
this and so allows it to happen -- for life to persist, for the mission
to be a success, evolution must occur, and to allow it he must
disengage from his own emotive reactions and allow the genome to survive
in the best way it can.
Baxter is a superlative writer of ideas, and more recently, as evidenced
by both Mayflower II and Coalescent, a writer of conscience
and emotion. His characterisation is stronger than ever whilst his conceits
continue to swim in ideas; fundamentally, and something that sets Mayflower
II apart from some of the earlier novels in the sequence, is that
the characters feel more important than the big ideas.
I hope future instalments in the Xeelee sequence continue to
be as strong.
Omega, the latest novella from Eric Brown, is another book that
begins with a lottery. Thematically akin to Mayflower II, it
also tells the tale of an escape and of an evolutionary corridor imposed
on the passengers of a starship fleeing from impending disaster.
Brown's book begins, in a similar way to Baxter's, with a character
struggling to come to terms with the realisation that his world is dying,
choked to death by pollutants, and that he must abandon his loved ones
to take his place upon a starship that will save humanity by taking
the genome to the stars.
Five thousand colonists from Earth are selected by lottery for cold
storage onboard the Dauntless, a vessel designed to make use
of emergent engine technology to search the stars for a new, habitable
Of the five thousand people frozen for the duration of the journey,
Latimer, our protagonist, and three others will be woken every thousand
years to carry out essential maintenance work and to check the progress
of the mission.
However, during the course of the journey the ship suffers terrible
damage and when the four crew wake, they find that not only have two
of the sleeper hangars been totally destroyed, the Central computer
system has begun experimenting on the surviving sleepers, trying to
find ways of guaranteeing the success of the mission. Like a crazed
HAL 9000 the ship's AI has begun modifying the frozen sleepers,
manufacturing cybernetic body parts in an effort to super-evolve a more
In many ways the set-up of both Approaching Omega and Mayflower
II echo and compliment each other; the ship escaping from a dying
world to set sail on a colonisation mission to the outer reaches of
space, the small crew or 'council' kept separated from the main body
of the passengers to maintain an overview of the mission, the slow evolution
of these passengers into something new, something different, an organism
that is simply trying to survive. But there are fundamental differences.
Where Baxter is exploring evolution as a constant, unwavering force
of nature, the result of inevitable genetic programming, Brown is doing
something very different; he's looking at the manner in which humanity,
or humanity's creations, can manifest the changes wrought by evolution
in a forcible and artificial way. Not only that, but he gives his form
of evolution purpose -- sourced by intelligence -- and that introduces
morality into the equation. No longer are the evolutionary changes wrought
by time alone, but instead by intelligent machines.
Latimer and his fellows soon find themselves hunted through the damaged
sections of the ship, sought by the Borg-like constructs of the Central
computer for reasons unclear to them; the new cyborg race wishes to
adopt them, to fold their knowledge and experience into its own, hive-like
society. Like animals backed into a corner, they fight.
And that seems to be exactly Brown's point. The humans who struggle
to escape from the inevitable march of their cybernetic passengers,
who are horrified when they stumble across chambers full of half-successful
experiments and dismembered human body parts are reacting on a base,
animal level. Unlike Baxter's Rusel, they are not awarded the luxury
of an inhuman perspective; they cannot see that they are more likely
to survive if they submit to the conversion process that will meld them
with the machines, that the most successful channel for their genes,
given the circumstances, lies with the cyborgs.
Brown handles this all with great panache, focusing largely on the
emotional impact of all this carnage, 'death' and impending cyberneticism
on his characters and the fear of Latimer that his lover, frozen in
one of the other hangers, may have already succumbed to the conversion
process. The claustrophobia of the situation is handled extremely well,
and, unusually for Brown, there is plenty of gun-toting action too.
Brown is a master of this type of psychological, character led sf,
and although Approaching Omega falls a little short of the emotional
depths of, say, his Tartarus stories, it certainly succeeds in
highlighting the sheer horror faced by this small group of people, trapped
on a damaged starship and seeing everything they hold dear about life
itself slowly disappearing before their eyes.
This is acutely illustrated by the capture of Jenny Li, one of the
crew, by the cyborg machines and the ensuing horrific surgery that the
remaining humans must witness, before one of them attempts to end her
life, as much as a gesture of compassion as a means of protecting the
knowledge of their plans from being discovered by the supposedly malign
Needless to say, things don't go as planned for either party and a
steady, normalising balance is eventually established. Yet Brown manages
cleverly to upset this normalised ending by seeding a thought in the
mind of the reader through an excellent plot device -- would things
have actually turned out better for the crew and the surviving frozen
colonists if they had allowed themselves to be super-evolved by the
machines? Was the process the crew were witnessing simply the trial
and error of evolution occurring on a vastly increased timescale, later
to lead to a new and perfectly evolved being? And, most importantly,
could the technology have provided them with a form of sublimation,
a heightening of the senses and a competitive advantage for their long-term
In the end, it seems, the forced evolution of the machines seems as
inevitable and unstoppable as the slower, onward march of nature itself,
and in that respect, Baxter and Brown appear to agree.
Food for thought indeed.
All in all, a provocative and well written novella that shows just
how good Brown can be when writing at this length.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: