Fiction Reviews


World Engines: Destroyer

(2019) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, 20, hrdbk, 564pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22317-2

 

It is the early 21stcentury and Reid Malenfant dies during a space shuttle launch.  However, it is clear that this space shuttle is not like anything you or I know.  Further, we learn that Reid's wife, Emma Stoney, died on the Martian moon of Phobos back in 2005: we are clearly not in our own timeline.

Reid wakes and it is the 25th century and he is on the Moon. He is being looked after by a human nurse and an artificial intelligence. It seems that medical technology has advanced enough for him to recover from his injuries.  Yet that is not why he was revived!  The artificial intelligences had recently picked up a distress message from his dead wife on Phobos!

Coming to terms with a climate-changed Earth and the news that a rogue planet from the depths of interstellar space is destined to smash into the Earth in a few centuries time, Reid eventually prepares for a mission to Mars.

Before that he goes to Earth to see what has become of humanity.  In addition to humans, there he encounters not true artificial intelligences, but sort of analogues to proper AI.  He also learns something of the history taking place while he was in suspended animation.

The one big issue, Damoclesically overhanging everything it that rogue planet that had been detected far out in the interstellar reaches. The Earth'sdestruction, albeit still some way off seems certain.

Yet it is the puzzle as to how a long-thought-dead Emma Stoney is apparently alive on Mars' moon that drives much of the early story.  Later on, the novel's latter quarter is preoccupied with a voyage to the outer Solar System. (I won't go into that as there'd be spoilers.)

Regular readers of Stephen Baxter will remember that we have encountered Reid Malenfant and Emma Stoney before (though this knowledge is not at all necessary to enjoy this novel).  They appeared in Baxter's novels Time (1999), Space (2000), Origin (2001) and Phase Space (2001). If you have read those, or indeed are familiar with a broad slice of Baxter's oeuvre, then you may guess what is coming among other things: yes, it's timelines galore.

I have to say, speaking personally, I preferred the first decade of Baxter's writing in the 1990s. Not only were his ideas fresh but he wrote in amore disciplined and economic way.  To me, this last decade (2010s) has seen his work more expansive and a little meandering.  Yet if you like more leisurely explorations of the fantastic you'll enjoy these.  With this novel the reader is more along for the ride that the resolution of the story. (I'll return to this last shortly.)

Baxter still delivers on the sensawunda (sense-of-wonder) front and there is much here.  His writing always has been fairly hard-ish SF and this one does have a decidedly space-opera riff.  What I do get a sense is that Stephen Baxter is beginning to tie the various elements of his past work together.  Not only, as mentioned, does this clearly have links with other Malenfant books (even if this is a different Malenfant) but there is also a mention of a Poole which is presumably one of the Poole family in Baxter's separate Xeelee stories. That series recently saw timeline crossing so there is a double connection there.  There is also the Ultima, Proxima duology and Obelisk coda with its space-time and timeline portals. It is not difficult to see a theme developing. How many of these dots Baxter will join in his coming books we will have to wait to see, though it will be interesting finding out.

The novel also contains a welcome, five-page afterward which is something the author regularly does as to some of the science fact underpinning the concepts covered in the story. (Scientists are invariably interested in glancing over other scientist's book shelves and it is interesting to see where hard SF authors get the foundations for their ideas.)

Returning to World Engines: Destroyer, the other thing is that this rogue planet destroyer thing does seem to be a bit of a McGuffin and the story does end somewhat precipitously with some questions left hanging.  Though it is not at all clear from the supporting fly copy and cover blurb World Engines: Destroyer is actually part of a duology and so this novel cannot be considered a complete story: there's more, so don't be disappointed.  The concluding half, the publishers have told me, will be World Engines: Creator and is currently slated for an autumnal 2020 release.  There is sensawunda to come!

Jonathan Cowie

 


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