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Traces by Stephen Baxter (HarperCollins Voyager, 16.99, 359 pages, hardback. Published 20 April 1998.)

Traces is an important book: Stephen Baxter's second collection, but in many ways his first real collection (1997's Vacuum Diagrams is a kind of semi-fix-up, a sequence of linked stories revised and tied together with new linking material in what the cover scan book's foreword -- but not many other people, it seems -- calls a novel).

Although Traces is in many ways flawed, one thing stands out: there's much to admire in almost any Stephen Baxter story, but in certain stories there's everything to admire. It is, needless to say, highly recommended.

Traces opens with the title story, one of Baxter's earlier contributions to Interzone and a story to which the author is still very attached. It's an interesting story to consider, as it displays both the high ambition that has always marked the Baxter's work (and which he has come ever closer to realising) and a lot of the failings of his earlier work.

'Traces' recounts two men's voyage to the Oort Cloud, the rough 'shell' of comets a third of a light year from the sun. Brewster is a professional astronaut, Dillard the mission specialist. Dillard is also a minister of the First Church of Christ the Holistic, the main backers of the current expedition. Baxter's earlier work is characterised by an exuberant willingness to tackle big ideas, and a stubborn determination to work through all the repercussions of the story's speculative premise. Here, the speculation is grounded in 1980s ideas about the possible memory-like properties of particles: what might we find if we examine the memories of the ancient and untainted particles in the core of a comet?

But there's far more to good sf than the Big Idea. The characterisation in 'Traces' is thin, and the dialogue and description are faltering at best. Too much of the dialogue is just a thin excuse for a lump of exposition -- we get statements like, "Of course it was GUT phase transition energy, liberated during the cooling period after the Big Bang, that fuelled the expansion of the universe itself." That's interesting background information, but can you actually hear people talking like that? (It's the "of course" that really sinks that one...)

Another telling criticism of 'Traces' relates to a throwaway gimmick Baxter uses for the spaceship: at the flick of a switch the lifecell's hull can be made invisible. Ignore the standard but unanswered Invisible Man questions of how much, exactly, is made invisible (every wire? every VDU panel? every dirt stain on the wall?), what is really missing from this sequence is any sense of being there. What's it like to be in a transparent ship? What about the isolation, the disorientation, the vulnerability of being surrounded by space? And compare this lack of realism to the superb verisimilitude of Baxter's later work: 'Moon Six', for example, is packed with all the crucial detail, the sense of really being there with the narrator.

It's clear, even in the early stories, that Baxter wanted to be able to do it all right from the start: he would never have been content as a writer of straight hard sf. 'Traces' isn't about science, it's about two men cooped up together: a solid Christian and a faltering atheist who half wants to undermine his companion's faith and half wants to fail to undermine it. It has the potential to be a wonderful character study, but unfortunately it's one that doesn't quite come off.

A lot of the elements of 'Traces' are visible in other early stories. 'The Droplet' is a carefully extrapolated Idea story, with more credible characters and convincing setting, but marred by too much expository dialogue. 'Something for Nothing' is a well-structured story about three men rendezvousing with an alien craft, but there's no sense of what it's like to be there with the protagonists, no indication of what kind of society they come from which can routinely mount such an operation. I just didn't believe it.

Many of the early stories can be characterised as hard sf in space, but it's clear from this collection that such stories form only a tiny part of Baxter's repertoire. As I've said, it was clear from an early point in the author's career that he wanted to be able to do it all, and in the last few years he's given it his best shot, both developing his skills as a story-teller and broadening the range of his subject matter.

One distinct Baxter sub-genre deals with transformed humans in hostile alien environments; another is a near-obsessive toying with the many variations of alternate history -- from alternate Victoriana to numerous alternate space programmes, pausing along the way for a bit of Glen Miller and the odd comicbook hero; and, of course, his fondness for the more traditional forms of hard sf remains, although now his approach and technique are far more sophisticated and accomplished than before.

'Downstream' offers a vivid travelogue of the strange: a colony of 'humans' lives by clinging to the bed of a turbulent, fast-flowing stream. What would happen if you let go and were dragged away? Where would you go and who would you encounter?

'The Blood of Angels' is a loose companion-piece to 'Downstream': various aquatic humanoids are waking as the spring thaw releases them from the ice. And they wake up to a shock. 'The Blood of Angels' -- as its title suggests -- is an altogether darker vision than 'Downstream': you can change human bodies, it tells us, but you can't change human nature.

This increasing darkness and cynicism has gone hand in hand with an increased realism in Baxter's work: a lot of his finest stories are also his darkest (although the buoyant optimism that marked his early work is always trying to break through -- striking up a nice balance).

Some of Baxter's finest stories involve alternate histories and alternate worlds.

A lot of alternate history is little more than a mildly diverting speculative game: let's change this and see what happens. For the most part, Baxter's alternates are far more sophisticated than this, providing him with numerous wide canvases to explore. In fact, his approach is not so much pure alternate history as what might be called retrospective science fiction: start at some historical point, introduce a speculative idea and then rigorously extrapolate its impact.

In 'Brigantia's Angels', for example, we go back to 1895, where a Welsh inventor is putting the finishing touches to his human-powered flying machine (the patent really exists). The deviation from our own history is that in this story the machine works, and Baxter relentlessly follows through the battle to convince people of its worth and how it changes the history of the 20th Century.

'Mittelwelt' is built around that alternate history staple: what if World War Two had gone differently? But that's just the backdrop: what makes this into retrospective sf is the introduction of a programme to build the first ballistic warplane. The story centres on Michael Kilduff, an independent American observer who is to be part of the volplane's first launch. The story builds into a fine study of the political machinations behind the launch: the ambition and curiosity of Kilduff set against the global consequences for his country's involvement in world events if he doesn't do the right thing.

'Weep for the Moon' is an unusual piece, in both tone and approach. As Glenn Miller waits for his plane to take off on that fateful foggy day in 1944 he's visited by an apparition of his brother, Herb, and the ensuing story consists of their conversation. It's a thoughtful and compassionate piece of pure humanist sf (in the sense that it explores the ramifications of an idea, rather than the idea itself) -- a highlight of Kim Newman and Paul McAuley's In Dreams anthology, 'Weep for the Moon' is a stand-out story in this collection, too.

Baxter's recent work -- both novels and short fiction -- has been dominated by his various alternate histories of humankind's move into space.

At one extreme we find stories like 'Columbiad' (the 'factual' basis of Verne's fiction, as told to Wells -- in many writers' hands such stories could come across as mere finger exercises, but Baxter's enthusiasm and respect for the genre win through) and the earlier 'Journey to the King Planet' (an enjoyable steampunk space romp -- pivotal in that it was an early staging post in the author's enthusiasms for both alternate Victoriana and alternate space programmes).

And at the other extreme we have a slew of gritty realist recastings of the US and Soviet space programmes. 'Pilgrim 7' takes us back to 1962: astronaut Wally Schirra is in orbit as World War Three breaks out below him and then, in an idea later taken up in 'Moon Six', we encounter an alternate world (and Baxter cleverly toys with the reader's skepticism, before explaining away our objections to his scenario).

'Zemlya' is not so much alternate history as an 'It really could have been this way' story, as we join a Venus-bound Gagarin on a mission with little hope of success -- the Soviet Union is willing to sacrifice a hero in a desperate bid to keep ahead of the USA in the space race. It's a clever adaptation of history into conspiracy theory, all tied together with speculation about evolution and a heavy dose of political realism.

The Hugo-nominated 'Moon Six' finds Baxter on top form, setting up a scientific mystery which he proceeds to pick to pieces in gripping and compelling manner. Bado and Slade are exploring the surface of the moon, when suddenly Bado finds himself on his own: no Slade, not even any sign of his footprints in the regolith. And worse: not only has Slade vanished, their landing craft has disappeared too... Baxter chooses to narrate the sequences on the moon in a sparse, descriptive, present tense voice. The cool precision of this running commentary picks out the panic and isolation of the stranded astronaut beautifully: it itemises it, making it strike home with far greater impact than a more emotive approach. 'Moon Six' is a fine story, one of the best in the book.

The last story in Traces is the remarkably grim vignette, 'In the MSOB'. Here, Baxter produces a poignant, wistful and intensely moving epitaph to the space race out of a squalid and nasty set of circumstances. This story is a remarkable achievement in that with each reading it gets stronger, hits you harder. An impressive way to close what is clearly a landmark collection.

Also received:
Vacuum Diagrams by Stephen Baxter (HarperCollins Voyager, 5.99, 460 pages, paperback. Published 20 April 1998.)

Described in the Foreword as "...a novel based on the short stories which -- together with my novels Raft (1991), Timelike Infinity (1992), Flux (1993) and Ring (1994) -- comprise my 'Xeelee Sequence' Future History." Just about everyone else (including some of the back-cover quotes) simply describes it as a collection.

Vacuum Diagrams is made up of 21 stories written between 1987 and 1995 and revised for this book, along with some new linking material. Many of the stories presented here are from early in Baxter's career and, despite the revisions, a lot of the criticisms explored above apply here -- in a project like this it's inevitable that the stories are chosen for the part they play in the Xeelee future rather than as representatives of the author's better work. For that reason, Traces is the stronger book, but there's still plenty of good material in Vacuum Diagrams.

Reviews by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 2 May 1998