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Mayflower II

by Stephen Baxter

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.)

Approaching Omega

by Eric Brown

(Telos, £7.99, 117 pages, paperback; also available as deluxe, signed, numbered, limited edition hardback priced £30.00; published January 2005.)


A double-headed review by George Mann

Mayflower II by Stephen BaxterI've 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 right buttons.

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 snapshots.

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 his own.

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.

Approaching Omega by Eric BrownApproaching 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 planet.

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 resilient species.

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 Central computer.

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 evolutionary success?

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.

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