Science Fiction Book Review


Transcendent

(2005) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, 12.99, trdpbk, 489pp, ISBN 0-575-07431-0

 

This is the third of the "Destiny's Children" books, following Coalescent and Exultant. Half a million years into humankind's future we have spread out through the galaxy, and we have taken many shapes. Some of us have even given up intelligence altogether. But some of us are trying to become part of the Transcendence, a godlike hivemind of beings with fantastically altered perceptions, but an all too human past. Citizens of the age are required to Witness, that is, to watch the lives of their ancestors. One young woman, Alia, is given the life of Michael Poole to Witness, an ancestor of a later Michael Poole with just as important a part to play in the galaxy's history. This Poole is living in the latter half of our twenty first century in a world coping with the effects of global warming and an all but depleted supply of oil. His estranged son is injured when he is caught in an area where a 'methane burp' happens, ice sediments releasing huge amounts of methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, temporarily achieving a density that suffocates humans. The implications of this event spur Poole to tackle the problem, even though his real love would be to get out to the Kuiper belt and examine the artificial object telescopes have discovered there. But spaceflight isn't a priority in this age, so he turns his attention to this new problem. Meanwhile Alia has been chosen by the Transcendence to herself become Transcendent. But, before she makes this transformation, she is encouraged to tour the galaxy to see what has become of humankind. And to gain a particular perspective in order to help the Transcendence to solve a problem, for before it can move on to new realms it must first come to terms with its own past. Can the past be redeemed to alleviate the Transcendence's sense of regret? Only Michael Poole can answer that, so Alia must travel into the past to ask him...

Somehow I missed reading Coalescent, though I encountered enough Coalescenses in the later two books to take a stab at understanding what went on, though it probably means I've missed a trick or two regarding members of a bloodline that has had Qax immortality treatments (at least the female members thereof). Exultant is now out in paperback (Gollancz, 6.99, pbk, 520pp, ISBN 0-575-07655-0), which is set 'just' 25,000 years into the future, when trillions of human child soldiers are fighting a seemingly endless war with the Xeelee, whose 'Prime Radiant' is the black hole at our galaxy's core. The 'front' in this war hasn't moved in millennia until a chance manouever in a minor engagement points the way to a method of allowing humans to equal, if not excel, the processing power of the Xeelee (local causality violations are the key). With this as a starting point a plan of 'Dambuster' proportions is launched to drive the Xeelee from the Milky Way once and for all...

On the whole I enjoyed Exultant quite a bit more than Transcendent which, to my mind, has a bit of a wishy-washy ending that makes you despair of godlike intelligences, not least those who don't forsee the paradoxes inherent in interfering with their own past light cones, and who wimp out when the time to stand up and actually become truly godlike occurs. "Half a million years to becomes Transcendent... oh, bugger, I can't be bothered because I'm too upset about all the poor humans who have suffered in the past..." Yeah, right. Not that that makes it a bad book - Baxter isn't the only accomplished SF writer I like who has, occasionally, taken his story in a direction I wouldn't have wanted to go, and ignored an option I would have preferred. But watcha gonna do? Thems the risks of the game. Anyway, big thumbs up to The Dambu... oops, Exultant, and a slightly more cautious thumbs up to Transcendent, and an 'over all' thumbs up to "Destiny's Children".

Tony Chester


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