We could be reading the opening of Time all over again, the first volume in this thematic series. But where in Time Malenfant was a dynamic astronaut-turned-businessman, giving a rabble-rousing speech to stir up backing for his ambitious plans to bootstrap humankind into space, as Time opens we are in an subtly different future where he is a rather jaded old ex-astronaut on the lecture circuit, musing internally on Fermi's paradox, the philosophical puzzle that is the bedrock of the series: if life is inevitable, if they are all out there, then why aren't the aliens here?
But the ironic twist in the brief opening is that everything has changed: they are here, or at least they are on their way. And the question becomes why now? It's a statistical near-certainty that we are living in the normal, steady state of the Universe, so why the apparent change of states, the sudden expansionist flourishing?
And as soon as the story is set up, it cuts sharply to a brief and vaguely dreamy sequence where Malenfant is somehow stranded in the core of the Galaxy, viewing a neutron star with a sail attached to it. Only Stephen Baxter...
(Incidentally, these cutaway scenes are one of the weakest parts of the novel, on a first reading, intruding and distracting from the gripping narrative flow. It's only as you approach the end that it all slots into place, but until then, they don't quite seem to fit.)
In the 21st century, the shuttle programme is over, the International Space Station has been abandoned unfinished, and the US have finally lost the space race, leaving the Japanese, Europeans and Chinese to push outwards through the Solar System. Malenfant, invited to lecture on the Moon, meets a researcher who has made strange observations of the Asteroid Belt. The researcher, Nemoto, had clandestinely arranged Malenfant's invitation so that she could consult him on her observations and, more importantly, use him to break them to the world. For Nemoto has seen signs of alien activity, and she finds them distinctly troubling.
In a sentence or two, Baxter dismisses the main explanations for Fermi's paradox: intelligent life doomed to self-destruct through war or eco-collapse; killer robots wiping out sentience for some reason; Solar System as quarantine or zoo. Malenfant, simply, finds none of these convincing. In the long run, all it would require was a single race to evade doom and the stable state of the Universe would be a scenario where the successful aliens would already have spread to every inhabitable region.
In so doing, Baxter has set himself an almighty challenge: he has to come up with a better explanation. He does so, admirably, as you might expect from one of the deepest thinkers in modern sf. But this is far more than merely an exercise in unfolding explanation, it's a chance for the author to romp forward through time and space, looking at the many forms life may take in a Universe where life is a fundamental, emergent from its physical laws. Also, it is a chance for him to look at the place of humankind in a Universe where many alien and sentient species have emerged, none with any particular advantage other than, simply, that they emerged a few thousand or million years earlier.
It is, inevitably for a novel which spans thousands of years, episodic in nature, as encapsulated by the realisation of one character, Madeleine Meacher: "Her life had become a series of episodes, as she'd drifted through scenes of a more-or-less incomprehensible history." The episodes in Space, are not so much incomprehensible, as simply disjointed: this is actually effective in its illustration of the lives of humans jumping through the future, hundreds of years missing as they are beamed around the Galaxy at light-speed; but it is also a structural problem for the reader, as it interrupts what is otherwise a highly-gripping race towards some kind of solution and explanation for the problems raised early on in the novel.
Space is a book crammed with ideas, in a way few other than Baxter can even approach, ranging from the day-to-day science-fictional furniture of his various futures, to stunning flights of speculation on alien biology, cosmology and engineering on a grand scale. As with most novels of ideas, it struggles at times with the most basic of problems of form: when ideas take centre stage, other aspects must retreat, and many characters appear to act according to the dictates of extrapolation rather than of their own will; many, too, are merely talking heads, playing their part in expository dialogues where characters discuss what is happening and why it might be so. It's hard to get away from that, though: the ideas are packed so densely into this novel that something has to give!
There will, inevitably, be a third book in this Manifold series, and it is one to watch out for. And, in the course of time, this is most certainly a series that will repay further reading as a whole, rather than spread out a year between each volume as dictated by publishing -- and writing -- schedules.
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© Keith Brooke 28 April 2001