(2014) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 549pp, ISBN 978-0-575-11687-0
This hard SF (as opposed to mundane SF which this is not) space opera starts exactly where Stephen Baxter's previous novel, Proxima, left off. So if you have not yet read Proxima then do so first, and do not continue with this review as it would effectively be one big spoiler for you…
Our party from Proxima's planet, Per Ardua, emerge from the new hatch to another world and face-to-face with a group of Roman legionaries, exactly as recounted at the end of Proxima. Now, I have to confess that I had originally thought that these legionaries were a group whose ancestors had been taken from ancient Earth, but it soon transpires that what we are actually in is an alternate timeline or something similar.
Meanwhile back in the Solar system a ship escaping the detonation of Mercury's kernel field (the mysterious power-filled objects) is saved from the dimension-ripping blast by the exhaust from its kernel drive. It too ends up in the alternate Roman-dominated timeline. Along for the ride is Earthshine, the artificial intelligence.
The novel quickly becomes kind of steampunkish, except that it is more sword-and-sandal-punkish, with Roman Empire styled spacecraft, slaves, polytheism, and so forth. But this is not as I would have imagined a 23rd century space-going Roman Empire but more an old Roman Empire that had somehow steampunk-lucked into space travel without having the underpinning enlightenment and renaissance of science we enjoyed in our timeline. (My own personal vision of a modern space-going Roman Empire would have been the Trigan Empire, but there you go.) In fact I was getting a little disappointed in Baxter leaving his wide-screen, hard-ish space opera behind for all this techno-sword-and-sandal stuff. And then halfway through the novel changes again and our protagonists from our timeline as well as a Roman troop ship get caught in another dimension rip to end up into an Inca-based technological timeline, and so we get an exploration of this culture…
Fortunately I need not have worried and, in case you do, let me assure you that the novel's final quarter does explain why things are the way they are and why these alternate timeline have their apparent illogicalities.
Having said that, Baxter's story does have some logic-defying moments. For example, the Romans are attacked by Incas who not only engage them in close combat but also are simultaneously being bombarded by a shower of arrows while fending off the Incas at close quarters. Why did the Inca archers fire on their own troops? Skipping over such (fortunately few) illogicalities, you will be pleased to hear that there is a solid story under all this that is every bit as gung-ho and widescreen space operatic as the first book in this duology. Now I say 'duology' as this is the word used on the accompanying press release with the review copy sent to SF2Concatenation. However the book's end could not just be a wrap for the two previous novels but also, as equally, be a gateway to a third. So, who knows...?
Ultima does deliver on a number of fronts. Not only do we get the aforesaid wide-screen space opera perspective on a romping adventure, we also get to explore a bit of two very alternate timelines, a big-dumb object (what's not to like about them), and touch on some cosmological angst in the process. And then for those also into real science, there is a very welcome two-page afterward with some science and popular science references to works that inspired aspects of the story.
While Ultima is not quite up there with the likes of McAuley, Banks, Reynolds et al wide-screen space opera (or even some of Baxter's own more-accomplished previous offerings) he has still given us a very enjoyable read with some sound sense-of-wonder thrown in. And given that this is a gung-ho adventure, at the book's end there is little not to like. If he does do a third then I would certainly get that.
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