(2006), Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 549 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7896-3
Resplendent sees Baxter on form but first a word of warning! Forget the publisher's promotional blurb which does about as much for the reader as a wet paper bag did for Marvin the paranoid android. This book does not feature the Roman Empire. It can be read alone even if it is part of the 'Destiny's Children' book (rather books one to four). That it is stated that this is a 'Destiny's Children' book is perhaps not entirely helpful because if you had read some of Baxter's other work you might perhaps wonder if it was worth buying into yet another universe to find out how it works for just four titles. (Actually Resplendent links in with much more, indeed the heart, of Baxter's SF.) Finally, being presented as 'book 4' suggests that you need to read books one to three first, and indeed that it -- being a 'book' -- is a single tale. It is neither. Resplendent is a collection of short stories (though the publishers did thoughtfully mention this lower down the back cover) albeit ones that have strong thematic links. For these reasons the cover's blurb, as far as I am concerned, does not really fulfil its function. But that is little old picky me for you.
So what do you have? Resplendent is a set of short stories that span the years from 5301 AD to 1 million AD (so as said forget the Roman Empire mentioned at the beginning of the back cover blurb). It does build upon Baxter's Coalescent that is Book One of 'Destiny's Children' as well as Transcendent. But it also builds on Baxter's Raft and Flux as revealed in a useful timeline given at the end of Resplendent. It is also set in the same universe as Timelike Infinity (1992). It therefore represents the latest in a series of books Baxter has written over the past one and a half decades, and not just some 'Destiny's Children' sequence.
As such Resplendent, as a collection of short stories, is very much a sibling to Vacuum Diagrams (1997) -- this last also features a comparable timeline as an appendix. So Resplendent is in fact part of the 'Michael Poole Universe' sequence; and indeed, Poole, or rather a sentient simulacra of him, does feature in one of the stories and there is a fair sprinkling of one-off, throw-away references to Poole throughout the collection. (I'd argue that saying it was set in the Mike Poole Universe would have been a far better descriptor than saying that this is part of the 'Destiney Children' series, or the Xelee' sequence, or a Quax story or whatever. Perhaps this is something for Baxter and is publishers to think about?) Mike Poole, for those not familiar with Baxter's works, was an early astronaut whose adventures took him to the end of time.
The stories in Resplendent can quite easily be read as stand-alone, though the thematic links are very strong. So much so that one cold almost, but not quite, describe this as a novel (the publishers nearly did). If one were to do this then it would be the story of Luru Parz born 5279 AD. She was (as were a few others) given the gift of immortality for her services to the invading Quax. Over the ensuing years, to 1,000,000 AD, humanity manages to get free of the Quax and then has to deal with the Xelee and another species of alien, the Silver Ghosts. Nearly a million years down the line Luru Parz reverse selects for an earlier type of human (closer to our own) as the rest of humanity has evolved and 'The Guardians', whose help is required, will only listen to a true human. This last in fact is the basis of the book's final story, called 'The Siege of Earth' albeit that it is set on a future Mars complete with canals (reminiscent of much early and mid-twentieth century SF about Mars). ('The Siege of Earth' itself was short-listed by the Locus magazine staff as one of the best novellas of 2006.)
Along the million years way, stories of the human mayflies (who lifespans are fleetingly transient compared to Luru Parz's) are told. These involve a good number of spaceship crashes, so you do not want to be in the insurance business in Baxter's universe, and a fair bit of conflict. The nearest story that involves another near immortal protagonist is 'Mayflower II' which is a generation ship yarn. A good one at that, but one along with many in SF that would put me off such a mode of interstellar travel should the remote chance of benefiting from such a possibility ever come my way.
Resplendent is sound hard SF, space opera and brings together a huge swathe of the vista Baxter has been portraying for many years. I enjoyed it. On finishing it I did wonder how much longer Baxter can continue developing this universe: after all Larry Niven once claimed that he had sort of painted himself into a corner with the 'Known Space' stories of the 1960s and '70s and by now Baxter has been developing the Michael Poole universe for about as long as Niven developed his. However I think there is plenty more ground for Baxter to cover and detail in which to fill. One thought that struck me is the deep time implications of Baxter's timescale cf. the strong anthropic cosmological principle. I mention this because Stephen Baxter has written a non-fiction book on deep time, Deep Future, which, though a bit of a light read (for scientists into SF), does demonstrate that he is well aware of the scale and tempo at which things really happen in our real universe beyond our so transient mayfly lives. So I reckon there is more Baxter could give us in the future and I for one will be looking out for it. A decided score for Resplendent.
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