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Origin by Stephen Baxter
(HarperCollins Voyager, 16.99, 455 pages, hardback; published 6 August 2001. Mass market paperback, cover scan6.99, 455 pages, published 5 August 2002.)

In my review of Space (available elsewhere in infinity plus), I said, "There will, inevitably, be a third book in this Manifold series, and it is one to watch out for" -- which was a little disingenuous, as I knew damned well there was going to be a third volume to round off this thematic trilogy: a landmark series from one of the most significant sf authors of the last decade.

Origin is that third volume and whilst it was certainly worth the wait, it was not quite the resounding finale I had anticipated.

Astronaut Reid Malenfant is on a NASA PR tour of Africa when he learns that he has been dropped from the next Shuttle mission. Administrators use some medical pretext for his grounding, but it's clear -- both to those close to Malenfant and to readers familiar with alternate Malenfants from the first two volumes of this series -- that it is his "difficult" personality that is to blame. While his hard-headed individualism has allowed him to scale the NASA heights, it has also counted against him in an age where teamwork and cooperation are seen as more valued traits.

Malenfant abandons the tour and, heading back in a borrowed jet with his wife Emma, he makes a detour to investigate a UFO sighting. They see a huge blue disc high in the sky and, at the same time, the Moon has ... well ... it has changed: now it appears to be larger, a colourful sister planet rather than a mere rocky satellite.

A more pressing concern than the changed Moon, the blue disc is apparently sucking atmosphere in like a giant vacuum cleaner, and the resulting turbulence makes it impossible to handle the plane, forcing them to eject. Malenfant lands safely, but Emma is drawn through the disc -- which turns out to be some kind of portal -- to a strange place where primitive hominids live their brutal lives.

With little evidence, save the coincidence of the new moon's appearance and that of the blue disc, Malenfant is convinced that the disc is a portal to the Moon and sets about campaigning for a trip to the Moon to investigate.

You don't get a much more abrupt shattering of world-views than when one moon vanishes and is replaced by a new planet, and it is the nature of this change, and the ensuing adventures as Malenfant galvanises efforts to find out what has happened and where his wife has ended up, that leads to the unravelling of the question behind the three novels in this series: "At last," as the jacket copy boldly claims, "the hidden resolution of the Fermi paradox concerning the existence of extraterrestrials -- 'if they existed, they would be here' -- is revealed in all its stunning significance."

Much of Origin is Baxter performing well. He has become very good, for instance, at the Heinleinian throwaway description which treats the exotically high-tech as everyday. The classic example for Heinlein is where the author says that a door "dilates" (a term Baxter also uses, perhaps in homage), conjuring up a sense of dramatic change in a mere word. In Origin, there's a delightful description of travel by matter transmitter:

The platform coalesced, as spacetime adjusted itself for the convenience of the expedition.

Elsewhere, the author's familiar concerns with the limitations of the NASA approach to space exploration re-emerge, and are nicely encapsulated in the observation of Malenfant's feelings as he arrives in Moon orbit:

What were you thinking, Malenfant? Are you surprised to find that this huge object, this vast new Moon, is in fact real?

Well, maybe he was. Maybe he had spent too long in Shuttles and the Station, going around and around, boring a hole in the sky. He had become conditioned to believing that spaceflight wasn't about going anywhere.

But also... much of Origin is Baxter not quite at his peak, perhaps spending too long lingering on the bits that interested him most and glossing over the bits that drew this reader up a little short.

The arrival of the new Moon, more massive than the original, causes powerful tides on Earth -- both in the oceans and in the Earth's interior. Dramatic stuff, indeed, as the resulting earthquakes, volcanism and flooding sweep the world. And yet, these upheavals are mentioned only as part of the backdrop and have little impact on the principle characters. There's no real sense of a world undergoing massive and catastrophic change. Malenfant, and the author, clearly can't wait to get to the new Moon.

One significant factor in Malenfant's mission getting backing is the human story: amid all the off-stage turmoil wrought by the new tides, here was a man on a mission to rescue his wife. And so they plan a mission that will get two astronauts to the Moon, with space to bring back one extra passenger.

All very sensible until you remember that not only did Emma get sucked through the blue portal, but so did a private plane with three passengers: presumably it shouldn't have been too hard to work out that they would have suffered the same fate as Emma, and yet no-one seems too bothered getting them back home...

As Baxter states elsewhere in infinity plus, one of his next areas of exploration, after completing this Manifold series, is the evolution of humankind. This is an interest that also plays a major part in Origin and it is the source of some fascinating and vivid writing. Indeed, one of the main story strands we follow is that of Shadow, a small, ape-like hominid who has a particularly hard and violent life. Her story is, indeed, an interesting and moving one, but I must confess that I'm not sure why she was given so much prominence in Origin... I kept waiting for her significance to be explained, and it never was, other than that it gave us some insight into the diversity of hominids on this strange moon.

As usual, it's far easier to dwell on a book's shortcomings than on its merits and that is what I have done in this review. Origin does have more shortcomings than I had expected but that should not be taken to imply that it is not another important novel with much to praise and enjoy. As ever, the grand sweep of Baxter's imaginings is awesome and, at a more basic level, much of Origin is a gripping adventure tale, or tales.

Perhaps this book's biggest failing is that it is less focused than its predecessors: we've been promised the Fermi resolution yet the subject barely crops up, except in passing, through what is part-survival adventure and part-anthropological-speculation story, which sidesteps tangentially towards discovery of the true nature of the universe. Come to think of it, there aren't many books you could sum up quite like that...


Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 4 August 2001