Sep. 23rd, 2007 03:49 pm
threemonkeys: (Waxlion)
In the vastness of all time and all space, coincidences happen. In that context I can report seeing an episode of Time Team where they are excavating a town beside Hadrian's Wall pretty much at the same time as I have been reading Stephen Baxter's Emperor which is set partly in a town beside Hadrian's Wall during Roman times. It was interesting seeing the analysis of bits of pottery and glass beads and then comparing that to Baxter's filled in picture. Of course Baxter is mainly relying on various classical pieces and the myriad of other work derived from them. Still there is a lot of interpolation - it is fiction when all said and done.

This is one of Baxter's broad sweep novels. Essentially a series of connected stories spanning an era by connecting family members across that time. Usually he does it in the future - this time it is the Roman empire in Britain. I like these stories when set in the future - it somehow captures the vastness of the universe. It triggers all those good sense of wonder feeling and nobody does it better. When it comes to the Roman, way too many others have done and others do it better. I bought Emperor together with its sequel as a special deal - I'm kinda regretting that right now.
threemonkeys: (Waxlion)
I must be tapping into a need because Exultant by Stephen Baxter is the third piece of humans in space big adventure I have read recently - along with books by Charles Stross and Alastair Reynolds. In broad appearance, they appear very similar space adventures and indeed if you were to place them on the great n-dimensional fiction map they would not be far apart. But where they would be on such a map is in that fuzzy intermediate zone between space opera and hard science fiction. Stross would be at the space opera side of the intermediate zone with Baxter at the hard SF side and Reynolds somewhere right in the middle of all that fuzziness. Close together and yet distinct.

Baxter's science is very hard indeed at a fundamental level. The only reason he gets close to the fuzzy zone is because he stretches it a very long way to make his story. But there is more, when Baxter writes the science can become more than a piece of the plot. Rather it is the basis for the story and more. In this particular book you would have to say that the physics of the universe comes awfully close to being a character in the story too. There are real human characters in Exultant too, and contrary to my experiences with the other authors I was able to relate to them somewhat. They aren't deep, but they seem real for the environment they are in and their actions not contrived and twisted to fit the plot rather than their internal character logic.

The plot revolves around the development of a weapon which isn't a bad way to include a lot of technology, except that it isn't technology. We currently have nothing to approach what Baxter is working with there. The raw material is theoretical physics. I think it really helps to have some good superficial (no maths necessary) understanding of the current state of cosmology theory before you read this book or you will just miss so much. You can still read it by just accepting the science as a bunch of technobabble, but if you do that, it effectively makes the book devolve into space opera for the reader - good space opera but not as good as the hard SF that it can be.

The other thing to mention is sense of awe at the universe. Nobody does this better than Baxter when he sets his mind to it as he did in this book. It is a great pity that he only does this rarely - so many of his books are so much more pedestrian in scope and feel when he does not use the whole universe as his canvas. In fact, I should note that this book is the second in a series - "Destiny's Children". The first book didn't do this at all and is a poorer work. In fact, you don't need to read the first book at all to read the second - the connection is pretty tenuous. You might be forgiven for thinking they were not related at all - maybe Baxter is playing games with his publisher. In fact this book is related to previous Baxter books - it is part of the Xeelee sequence. Go figure. Go read. Go enjoy.


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