(2019) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 564pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22317-2
I have read quite few Stephen Baxter books over the years and have usually enjoyed them, though I have always felt there was something missing. He sets up ingenious plot situations and then lets the plot roll to see what happens. Problem is, I am never too sure things would work out the way he assumes – for instance in his novel Flood (2008) sea waters rise and rise until the whole Earth is covered in water (not sure why – there’s a hand-wavey explanation but no real logic) and people have a century or so to work out what to do next. But instead of a massive effort to build space colonies, underwater habitats, waterproof city-domes or (my favourite) country-size rafts of some genetically engineered sturdy floating sea-wood, there’s one medium-sized ocean going liner, a small underwater habitat and an underfunded colony ship programme. And nearly everyone dies. So, great setup, head scratching thereafter.
Flood and its consequentials have been bugging me for years, to the point that I look at any new Baxter book with some trepidation. Will his instincts be so far away from mine to leave me head-scratchingly frustrated again?
With this one,well, yes. Plot first: Reid Malefant, (who also appeared in Baxter’s Manifold series) wakes up five hundred years in the future (Buck Rogers? Not quite) where the world has changed and become much duller. AIs rule, the human population has declined sharply and no-one has to work any more. This leads to inevitable listlessness, not least in Malefant himself, who was woken in response to a mystery signal from Phobos, purportedly coming from his dead ex-wife. Malefant gets very grumpy about everything in the future, apart from his new friend, inquisitive teenager Deirdra. Together they bully their way into space to see what’s going on in Phobos, which turns out to be a massive artefact that acts as a pan-dimensional gateway.
Looming large in this version of Earth’s future is 'The Destroyer' – a massive new planet of extra-solar origin on a collision course with Neptune in… nine hundred years. The consequences of this for the inner planets would, it is predicted, be catastrophic. Everyone seems resigned to their fate and the human race is engaged in a long wait to die. But not Malefant – which is why the planetary AIs send him out to Phobos hopefully to save the day.
The message from Malefant’s dead wife turns out to be from a version of her – Emma – from another dimension. They come across a Russian from elsewhere too, and a shipload of Brits with comedy accents (think Picard’s comedy Frenchman act in the latest Star Trek series). Everyone is from a different what-if universe where Britain still has an Empire, or Neal Armstrong died on the Moon, or Watergate never happened (etc.), which is always fun speculation.
Then the plot shifts direction. Malefant is no longer grumpy (presumably because he now has something to do) and the Brits take everyone to the fabled ninth planet, here named Persephone, which is home to some strange alien ‘towers’. I’d have stopped there to avoid spoilers but the book’s title is ‘World Engines’ so I’m sure you can guess what the towers might do. Suffice to say, big things happen and a sequel is quite neatly cued up.
Does the story work? It’s bitty, and has two distinct tones. When Malefant wakes, he’s an angry man and kicks out at all around him. The past was infinitely better in all its aspects, at least until he gets his way (and a spaceship). At which point there’s a major tonal shif as he heads out on his mission. Deidra is more likeable – also bored with the inaction and resignation of her ultra-constrained society she’s our inquisitive eyes and ears. I’m glad she’s there, but the logic in her being allowed to go to space with Malefant eludes me. But the real head-scratcher for me is Earth’s reaction to its future destruction. Space colonies are abandoned and the end is considered inevitable, since only Earth can a properly viable habitat for mankind. But surely not! Wouldn’t we (mankind) try to push Shiva (the Destroyer) off its course?  Wouldn’t we try much harder to set up space colonies that worked? Or leave for different star systems? Or work on trans-dimensional gateways? When they’re actually discovered on Phobos there’s not even a ‘never thought of that’ moment, and certainly no speculation that the gateways they do discover could be used to save Earth’s dwindling population. So yes, once again, maddeningly, Baxter’s instincts about what might happen differ wildly from mine, which means I’ll probably be thinking about all the angles in this book in ten years time, just like I still am with Flood.
But, frustrating though it is at times, I did like this book and will certainly be looking forward to the sequel.
See also Jonathan's take on World Engines: Destroyer.
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