(2017) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 346pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21718-9
This is a spectacular, hard-ish, widescreen space opera set in the decades follow 3646AD but which actually refers to events in the future (or possible future) towards the age where the Universe's stars are beginning to die… And that's just the setting.
The book begins in Jupiter orbit and Michael Poole, with his father Harry, are about to test run the Michael's new wormhole technology which will cut the lengthy journey time of many days between Jupiter and Earth to mere minutes. And it is all looking very good. The wormhole opens and then something unexpected as a giant insectoid type craft emerges only just managing to scrape through the portal. It is accompanied by 'entities' that swarm around the Earth ships disabling them and then the alien craft and entities head of for the inner Solar System…
If you are a hard-ish SF reader into space opera and have not come across Baxter or the Xeelee then you are in for a real treat. Yes, this novel does reference other of Baxter's 'Xeelee' books and stories but please don't let that worry you. Such references are actually short sentences between chapters and are really more their as signposts for those who have followed Baxter's Xeelee space opera stories over the past couple of decades: they really don't matter. The reason they don't matter is that the Xeelee that emerged from the portal is from the far, distant future in which our Universe is (naturally) dying and most of the Xeelee have left it. This one was sent back in time to attack Earth as (apparently) humanity had (some time in this novel's future) been enslaved by the Xeelee but then (successfully) fought back. This time-travelling Xeelee was sent back to destroy humanity before what will have happened happens. In short, all that has gone before is now off the cards as the Xeelee are in the processes of editing the space-time continuum. This means that you can easily read this as a standalone novel, before you dive into previous works as you wish.
Of course at first this is not grasped and humanity watches as the Xeelee begins to do its strange stuff in the inner system before heading for Mars which is when things start getting a tad hairy.
Conversely, if you are a past fan of Baxter's Xeelee stories then you are in for a real treat with space operatic antics on Mercury, close around the Sun, the Earth, Moon, Mars, and way out in the Oort Cloud among other places within our planetary system. And there's bags of techno-thrills from terraforming, space elevators, arcologies to asteroidal habitats and not least a couple of ways to kill a planet should that happen to be your wont. Sense-of-wonder is clearly Baxter's middle name.
For science buffs into the concepts underpinning the novel, there are a most welcome couple of pages afterword that cites some of the academic papers Stephen Baxter drew upon. You can use these citations to search engine the original science works. Of course, science is ever marching forward and as it happens one paper Baxter could not cite as it was published after he completed drafting this novel and during its printing. This concerns the negative mass or energy (which Baxter does mention) needed for his wormhole creation and now negative mass particles have been detected. This means that stargates need not be some obscure physics theoretical construct but might, one day, become and actuality.
Finally, Xeelee: Vengeance is the first of a duology with Xeelee: Redemption to follow next year (2018) and is something for which to look forward.
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