Fiction Reviews

Creation Node

(2023) Stephen Baxter Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 439pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22895-5


In the year 2255, 'Planet Nine' has been detected far out beyond the edge of the Solar System at some 700 astronomical units (AU), far beyond Neptune at 30 AU and roughly four light days from the Earth. It is a mysterious body and approaching it was an interplanetary ship the Shadow. The Shadow had taken 35 years to get there and had found that Planet Nine was in fact a black hole with a very small size but the mass of several Earths.

As the Shadow approached its crew detected an abnormality in the hole's Hawking radiation: a signal. The crew of the shadow decide to play the signal back to the black hole. This has an immediate reaction that transforms it into an almost featureless planet. At exactly the same time as the broadcast and black hole transformation, a beam of energy from the centre of the Galaxy begins to bathe the Solar System. If this beam continues for many decades then the energy it will impart to the Earth alone will undue the climate change mitigation of the past couple of centuries.

Those on Earth decide to send a new mission to planet nine, and plan to do so in years rather than decades that the Shadow had taken. This they would do by fuelling a ship once it had reached Saturn with helium-3 for a new fusion drive.

But humanity had fractured following its colonisation of the Moon and asteroids. There was one group called conservers who believed in using resources sparingly: the Shadow was a conserver ship. There were those on the Moon, the Lunar Consortium, who were for using Solar System resources for economic growth and other factions. The bottom line was that there were to be two new, separate missions in a race to planet nine…

This then is the set up. We do get a short couple of pages at the end of chapter two that suggests some sort of pan-universe hyper-intelligence was aware of goings-on in our universe and this speaks to the novel's final quarter. This gives the novel very much a two-part feel with the first, the major part being the first three-quarters that sees the two mission race to planet nine. This, and other discoveries at planet nine firmly hold the reader's attention with a neat, space opera and a fine first contact story worthy of Arthur C. Clarke.

The book's final quarter sees multi-verse shenanigans with much techno-talk and discussion of life the universe(s) and everything. It marks a massive change from the largely hard SF of the novel's first three-quarters.  It's the sort of discussion Baxter is known for and his fans will lap it up, but for my money is too dues ex-machina. That and an unsavoury assassination meant that I wished for a different conclusion but, as said, Baxter fans will probably like it.

Of interest to those who have a penchant for science – and we are the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation – there is an interesting appendix with some useful references to academic papers as to the various types of spacecraft used. However I must give you a health warning as to one paper mentioned on the timing of evolutionary transitions which is so flawed that it should not have passed peer review (a look at the authors reveals that none have any background in deep time evolution). The paper basically concludes that technology wielding intelligence in the galaxy is very rare: a conclusion that may or may not be true but its methodology is flawed. The one saving grace of this paper is that near its end it includes the qualifier 'Arriving at an alternative conclusion would require either exceptionally conservative priors, finding additional instances of evolutionary transitions, or adopting an alternative model'.  The afore underlining is my own for emphasis as key evolutionary steps – such as photosynthesis, endosymbiosis (the transition from simple bacteria-like cells to more advanced cells found in plants, animals and fungi), multicellularity, gene shuffling (including seΧ) – have all had multiple origins! Only oxygen-generating photosynthesis seems to have had a single origin, one well prior to two billion years ago. (It is possible that it was such a neat trick that having come into existence it out-competes putative evolving rivals.) I am not convinced that simple, probabilistic mathematical models are useful in explaining why it has taken nearly four billion years for life to evolve to a technology-wielding level; a qualitative co-evolution of life and planet narrative is, I contend, a more informative alternative model… But let's get back to the novel…

So, what we have with Creation Node are two tales: a rock-solid interplanetary race and first contact scenario together with, in the book's final quarter, wild, multiverse cosmological speculation: it's the sort of stuff you can overhear late at night in the students union bar (fun times). Baxter fans will love it and you could say that you are getting two stories for the price of one.

Jonathan Cowie


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