(2015) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 438pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21270-1
This widescreen, space opera collection on novelettes and short stories sees Stephen Baxter return to the 'Michael Poole' timeline of some of his earlier works not least including: Coalescent, Transcendent, Resplendent and Vacuum Diagrams. The stories are reprints of those originally published between 2004 and 2011, all re-edited for consistency and story links, with the exception of 'Endurance' which is original to this collection.
This 'Xeelee' timeline is a long one: so long that it encompasses some cosmological evolution. The stories in this collection are presented in timeline order starting at 3685 AD to c. 5 billion AD. Well, I did say that this was 'widescreen' space opera.
The Xeelee themselves are advanced aliens who for a while conquered Earth but who went on (or had) ambitions that related to the very nature, and development, of the Universe. But, and this you do need to know, the Xeelee themselves are very much in the background and are rarely name-checked in this anthology; this anthology is more about how humanity develops over the millennia and eons as well as deal with events such as its encounter with the Xeelee and indeed with other alien invasions by the Squeem and Qax who do, for at least a story each, come more to the fore.
Now having said all of this, and set this collection in the context of Baxter's ouvre, do be reassured that this ensemble of stories is relatively self-contained: that they hint at, or allude to, other of Baxter's works does not detract from readers new to this 'Michael Poole' or Xeelee timeline but actually enhance it. So newcomers to Stephen Baxter need not worry.
And so to the stories themselves:-
'Return to Titan' is set one-and-a-half thousand years into the future and Jovik wakes to find himself in the Saturn system and in the presence of a rejuvenated Harry Poole (father of Michael who made the first of what are in effect 'star gates' ['Poole interfaces'] for spacecraft to travel through) and associates who seem hell bent on an illegal manned expedition to the surface of Titan, one of Saturn's moons. However, kidnapped Jovik is not exactly himself but a computer simulation of himself and we are very much in Greg Egan territory…
'Starfall' is set 4771 – 4820 AD. The alien Qax have now gone and Earth has developed it s own colonies among the nearby stars. But the colonies do not want the yoke of Earth and so mount an attack using conventional (slower-than-light) craft…
'Remembrance' set 5071 AD. The Squeem have been defeated and expunged from the Solar system. At least that is what it was thought until a colony of Squeem was found on Rea, Saturn's second largest moon. But what should be done with them? While this question is being pondered, Harry Gage approaches the authorities for he remembers what everyone else has forgotten…
'Endurance' is set 5274 AD. Humans working for the Qax alien invaders prepare for the anticipated return of Poole's ship after 1,500 travel close to the speed of light and carrying a Poole interface. Due to the weird physics (just don't ask) this interface (stargate) will act as a time machine. But the Qax have ideas of their own and decide to get their humans to build another near-light-speed craft for their own mission…
'The Seer and the Silverman' is set 5810 AD. With the Qax gone humanity has become scattered among the stars. In a colony on an ancient generation ship peace is uneasy with the alien Ghosts, especially as there are 'disappearances'…
'Gravity Dreams' is set 927,225 AD. Cotton has dreams of a strange world of trees floating in space and humans riding whales. But do these dreams have any substance..? This tale ties in with events of Baxter's book Raft.
'Periandry's Quest' is set c. 3·8 billion years hence and is the first of four stories set on a distant Earth that has been radically changed. In this world the ruling elite live at a slower rate in the kilometres-wide shelf plateau that in turn was beneath the attic where the serving class lived and where time ran faster. Peri is attracted to an attic girl and makes a controversial decision to go up to the attic to seek her out.
'Climbing the Blue ' is set four billion years hence. Celi lives on the shelf and decides to climb up into the blue where time runs fast. There, where pathogens mutate faster, he hopes to find a cure for the blight affecting his people.
'Time Pit' is set c. 4·5 billion years hence and war rages on the shelf. But the war is not going well for soldiers Tira, Belo and Dane as their enemy has baloons which, high above, move fast in the speeded time while they themselves become slow-moving targets. The only way to escape is to hurl themselves down a chute into the unknown red mist far below where time runs ever slowly but which has been unknown for countless millennia so that nobody know what is there and what has gone on there over the ages. Tira and comrades are about to find out.
'The Lowland Expedition' is set c. 4·8 billion years hence and an expedition from the shelf into the abysal red mist seeks to explore the mysteries of the slow-time moving depths. But they know that when they return to the shelf, and its faster time stream, all that they knew will be gone. The knowledge the glean on their expedition will, though, benefit their great-great-grandchildren. And then they spy what looks like a city…
'Formidable Caress' is set c. 5 billion years hence. Teni discovers why the Earth is the way it is as the Andromeda galaxy once more caresses our own in the course of its collision dance…
And there you have it, a heady mix of tales that together cover such a vertiginous span of time that it is difficult to appreciate the full tapestry Baxter is weaving. One day I must really sit down and read all of Stephen Baxter's Michael Poole and Xeelee stories in timeline order, but I suspect before then we may get another collection or two like this one plus, hopefully, a Xeelee novel or two for good measure.
Xeelee Endurance is a fast ride into the far future that fans of the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Iain Banks will certainly take delight.
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