Monday, November 20
From a review of Stephen Baxter's Omegatropic:
As a critic, Baxter pulls no punches. His comments about others' work on similar themes to his own books (future history and space opera, etc) are often strident but also highly perceptive. Unsurprisingly, it is American writers that are the main targets of Baxter's incisive analysis. He's justly intolerant of implausibility in both plot development and character motivation, and derides US authors for their lack of any sense of irony. Baxter seems to suggest that this last bit of typically British sensibility is an essential part of any SF writer's mindset, irrespective of their nationality. This is not to say that Baxter slams optimism, only that American blue-sky thinking ought to be tempered with an awareness and deep consideration of the alternatives.Riiiight.
I've just read Baxter's Timelike Infinity and Ring, the second and fourth books of his Xeelee sequence. The first, Raft, is out of print (or nearly so); the third, Flux, I bounced off after two pages.
With the small size of my sample set noted, it must also be noted that the plots of the two books I have read, and indeed the overall plot arc of the Xeelee sequence (which is outlined in those two books), is only possible if the great majority of Baxter's characters, and indeed of all sentient life-forms in his universe, are either brain-damaged or insane.
They build a starship to go on a five million light-year cruise, dragging one end of a wormhole with it, and their primary concern is the stability of the society on the ship during the cruise. The ship is churning across five million light-years of space at a velocity so great that only a thousand years will pass on board (and that includes deceleration and the return voyage!) and they are worried about social interactions. Medical techniques have advanced to the point that at least two of the original crew survive the journey; computer technology has advanced to the point that human minds can be (and are) uploaded into machines and so are effectively immortal, and they can't keep a starship crew functional for a thousand years. One of the characters is five million years old, and they can't...
And then they drop the wormhole and break it.
They have time travel. They have working time travel. In both directions. They've actually used it. And they still can't get anything right.
And while this is going on, the human race takes over the galaxy, gets wiped out by the race that controls the rest of the universe, which is then destroyed (for a rather dubious value of destroyed) by something even the humans have known about for five million years (and which has been around for twenty billion years, and just happens to crop up now), and apparently no-one involved ever bothers to talk to anyone else.
The astrophysics are complete baloney too. If you artificially cool the hydrogen core of a main-sequence star so that fusion ceases and it collapses under its own gravity, you might very well get helium fusion in the surrounding layers and something that resembles a regular red giant. But the hydrogen core is still there, even if it's collapsed into degenerate matter, and if you ever remove the artificial cooling you'll have an instant supernova.
And, and, and, red dwarfs are among the most useful stellar objects for a species planning seriously for the long term. A small red dwarf can keep up hydrogen fusion for a trillion years or more, a long time even to the Xeelee. And they're everywhere. Space is littered with the blasted things. Oh noes, we have no yellow stars, we are done for! What crap.
All of which criticism would not be nearly so mordant, if it were not for that one sentence from that review:
He's justly intolerant of implausibility in both plot development and character motivation, and derides US authors for their lack of any sense of irony.Yeah, well, Baxter certainly has a keen sense of... something.
P.S. American blue-sky thinking ought to be tempered with an awareness and deep consideration of the alternatives. Yeah. Baxter's characters manage to commit suicide on behalf of not just the human race, but almost all life in the galaxy, through wilful and persistent stupidity. Mr Baxter, I have given deep consideration to your alternatives, and they suck.
P.P.S. I'm off to watch Sumomomo Momomo. Add half an eye-sparkle to my earlier review. It's no classic, but it's silly and fun.
P.P.P.S. That line about "American blue-sky thinking" still has me steamed. But having not read the book in question, I don't know how well it represents what Baxter actually wrote - it could well be something the reviewer read into it rather than something that is actually there - so I'll lay off awaiting further data.
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