Stephen Baxter. Phase Space : stories from the Manifold and elsewhere

Leading British SF writer Baxter had previously collected stories in his ‘XeeLee’ sequence into a collection (‘Vacuum Diagrams’), and here he brings together a set of stories collected around his ‘Manifold’ novel sequence, and around alternate histories of space travel in the 60s/70s/80s.

A short prologue has Reid Malenfant and family, along with scientist Cornelius Taine witnessing the coming together of all the alternate Earths caused by their experimentation with Phase Space.

Dreams (I)

Moon Calf. (originally in Analog, Jul-Aug 1998).

Colonel James Holland, ex-astronaut and now a writer who is popularising science, is in Hereford, on the England/Wales border. A geological anomaly in the local church, and the history of that church point tantalisingly to a history in which th e Chinese used their experience with gun-powder to read for the stars centuries ago.

One of the marks of a good writer is knowing how far to go with an idea – Baxter takes the idea just far enough, leaving the reader wanting more and thinking about the story, as opposed to pressing on too far and perhaps spoiling the story.

Earths

Open Loops. (originally in Skylife ed Benford, Zebrowski, 2000).

I’ve shied away from reading Baxter’s novel series, partly through lack of time, and partly through fear that they just won’t have the same impact as his best short fiction. Case in point is ‘Open Loops’ which does get towards that smack in the mouth sense of awe that Arthur C Clarke managed with his shorter novels (Rama, Childhood’s End) but which didn’t quite manage in his other longer novels.

Baxter intertwines a number of threads – galactic forces, alien entities, and the necessary human angle. We start that latter (and the main) story sequence with Oliver Greenberg about to go extra-vehicular in orbit. He is helping prepare for a Mars mission by visiting asteroid Ra-Shalom as it passes near to Earth. In touching the asteroid there is an echo of 2001 in which that touch indicates a quantum leap for humanity.

The story continues through Greenberg’s eyes as he lives far beyond the lifespan he expected. As humanity colonises the Solar System it develops nano-tech which enables both Earth and what we would class as ‘being human’ far behind. Greenberg ends up a relic of the Earth-bound past, and Baxter sweeps through the centuries with bravura.

Glass Earth, Inc. Originally in Future Histories, McLelland 1997)

If the preceding story was looking outward to discern humanity’s future, here Baxter looks inward. He paints a memorable near future in which video surveillance, data storage, and advertising (which has to be taken, like medicine) have run amok, contrasting the high-tech with the location (historical Tower Bridge), an olde-fashioned crime (murder), and a new technology to threaten the previously new (geo-stationery satellites).

With imagery somewhat Matrix-like (nb the story was written in 1997) the cop assigned to the case uses hi-definition video to replay from a variety of angles the murder scene. However, all is not as it seems, as the AIs which help us humans to manage information overload, are in fact going beyond their role in filtering out that which we do not need (in their opinion) to see. The resolution, in which the cop is reduced to millions of pixels, is chilling.

The neutrino science underpinning the story is, as is usually the case, explained to us through a mix of info-dumping/conversational explanation, although in the story one character does actually say ‘forgive me for not going into the details’, which Baxter must have written with gritted teeth.

Poyakhali 3012. Originally in Decalog 5 (Leonard/Mortimer, 1997).

Yuri Gagarin embarks upon the first trip into space, only to find more than simply the darkness of space – for he is a simulation, (the 3012nd one), and awareness of being observed of course invalidates the experiment.

Dante Dreams. Originally in Asimovs, August 1998

Baxter shifts a couple of gears into a complex tale built around Dante’s view of Heaven and Hell. A UN Sentience Cop arrives in the Vatican to investigate the alleged creation of a true AI, something which is strictly illegal. A young priest who had created/chanced up a fundamentally challenging mathematical underpinning for everything has committed suicide in such a way to suggest she did not want to be re-created virtually. However, the Church has duly done so, and the UN cop and a senior Vatican priest are taken by the virtual Eva Himmelfarb on a Dante-an journey which shakes them to the core.

War Birds. Originally in Asimovs, August 1998

A pessimistic alternate Earth in which the Space Shuttle program has been used by the USA to establish a globally dominating military presence, which it uses to horrific effect. The downwards spiral is seen through the eyes of USAF officer Burdock, who is first to set foot on the Moon – after Neil Armstrong and colleagues died in an explosion in their lander minutes after landing. His brutal destruction of a Soviet robotic explorer near the site is symptomatic of the level of paranoid anger that continues throughout the story, which sees Burdock witnessing increasinly devastic global destruction that culminates firstly in his son being killed in a Shuttle by an attack from China, and finally (very finally) the USA showing their military strength of through an ill-advised display of military strength on the Moon.

Worlds.

Sun-Drenched. Originally in Bending the Landscape (Pagel/Griffith, 1998)

Astronauts Bado and Slade have just separated in the lunar module from the command module and are heading for Moon landing when a fire destroys the CM and leaves them with no way home. The guys live out the remaining life the oxygen they have gives them, sabotaging their liftoff from the Moon in order to go out in a blaze of glory.

Martian Autumn. Originally in Mars Probes (Ashley) 2002

One of the few children on the Mars looks down at the almost-empty Earth, and finds out how ancient intelligences hidden in our DNA have caused a global reboot – bringing the planet back down to a lower point, the better to rebuild.

Sun God. Originally in Interzone 120, June 1997

In the far future an intelligence far different to those which once inhabited the Earth ponders the nature of life on Earth, and creates a number of simultations to determine what strange creatures lived on the planet and reached out to the Moon. And in those simulations we see alternate Bado/Slades in far differing realites.

Sun-Cloud. Originally in Starlight 3 (Hayden) 2001

Baxter takes us to a truly alien lifeform in an oceanic world, in which Sun-Cloud questions the nature of life and death.

Manifold

Sheena 5. Originally in Analog, May 2000

When it was collected in Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF #6, I read and wrote:

    Baxter has seen the future (and the past) through the eyes of woolly mammoths (the LongTusk books) and post-human penguins (‘Huddle’ from last year’s Hartwell). Here humanity have well and truly f**ked things up, and in a desperate last chance a genmod squid is used to pilot a ship out to a mineral and water-rich asteroid, which is to be brought back to Earth. Against the odds the squid, Sheena 5, manages to succeed, but further to that, is able to raise fertilized eggs she brought on board with her. As the future generations of squid develop, they become truly sentient and what finally returns to earth is much more than was anticipated.

The Fubar Suit. Originally in Interzone 123, September 1997

There is a long tradition of stories in which people in space or on the moon find themselves in a life-threatening predicament, but manage through scientific/technical cleverness, to save themselves (a tradition proudly maintained in the pages of Analog each issue).

Baxter shows how this kind of story can be done with somewhat more chutzpah than the norm. The Fubar suit is one area in which the asteroid miner whose journey we follow spares no cash – for such a clever suit offers the chance of maintaining life in the most dire of situations.

Sadly the ship she chose to get her to the asteroids is not up to scratch, and she finds herself with a final conundrum.

We gradually find this out as her story is told in flashback, and through an intriguing glimpse into a strange, quasi-human life form.

Baxter’s bodacious rabbit-from-the-hat is that the miner is in such a dire position that she has taken the ultimate solution the Fubar (fucked up beyond all repair) suit – she is disassembled from the neck down, to create a contained ecosystem inhabitated strange, miniaturised humans. In this way she can in theory last almost forever. However, humans being humans, those inside her rail against their limited horizons and go a-exploring.

And her choice? To shut down the little people and save herself, or…

You can read this story on the Baxterium website.

Grey Earth. Originally in Asimovs, December 2001

When it first appeared I read and wrote:

    Baxter provides a ‘side-bar’ to latest ‘Manifold 3: Origin’ novel. The conceit is that there are numerous quantum Earths (a currently ‘hot’ topic). Baxter proposes a mysterious ‘red moon’ which travels between alterante realities, under the control of an elder species. As in his novel, there is a link between our Earth and one in which a hominid race became ascendant. Mary, a homo sapiens, has been stranded on an Earth with a major axial tilt, generating months long winters and months long baking hot summers. She is stranded having returned a group of hominids to this strange earth, her transportation having been damaged beyond repair upon landing. This main character is evidently featured in the Manifold series and consequently the enjoyment of this story will be the more for those of you familiar with the novels.

Huddle. Originally in May, July 1999

The ingenuity and the plain obstinacy of the human race if fully explored through a penguin-like society huddling in icy wastes. These are post-humans, genmod adapted to live in the terrible conditions visited upon Earth. When one inquisitive human decides that there must be more than the life they are living, he takes a couple of friends with him.

They finally find a warmer valley in which clearly human being live, but in a bitter twist, the genmod penguin-like posthumans are rejected.

Paradox.

Refugium. Originally in Mammoth Book of Science Fiction, (Ashley 2002)

The grandson of Reid Malenfant is (reluctantly) the first human to enter one of the alien bubbles which have been found across the galaxy, encircling abandoned planets. We boggle with him as the bubble whisks him across the universe where he and his companion find an earthlike planet on which it would appear humanity is being offered the opportunity to live, an offer extended to other intelligent lifeforms, now living on other refuge planets.

Lost Continent. Originally in Interzone 164, 2001.

Baxter proposed a resolution to the Fermi Paradox which also ties up the loose-ends of varied folk tales of ancient lands. An ancient, alien race have removed themselves from the Earth in the face of imminent global catastrophe. The cauterisation of their removal, both in terms of the geophysics of Earth, and the memories and the histories of those left on Earth, is still having effects.

Tracks. Originally in Interzone 169, July 2001.

A story which straddles both the Alternate Earths stories in the volume, and the Fermi Paradox stories : in reaching the moon rather earlier than anticipated we trigger problems in the VR construct which those who are studying us have enmeshed us.

Lines of Longitude. Originally in Dark of the Night (Jones, 1997)

A lecturer finds that one of her pupils in an adult education evening classes has, as if often the case, wild theories about alien abduction. However, this character weaves a plausible tale, and the nature of his strange appearance appears to support his pet theories. Has he truly opened Pandora’s Box?

Barrier. Originally in Interzone 133, June 1998

Against some baffling M-theory 11-dimensional space science, two elderly geezers find themselves on what ends up a one-way mission to the edge of the universe in which we are constrained. The political and sociological situation on the Earth when the leave (including older people facing oppression similar to the Jews in 1930s Germany) is a chilling one, but the individual humanity stands out at the end.

Marginalia. Originally in Interzone 143, May 1999.

With political obfuscation pretty much de rigeur these days, Baxter provides an ingenious series of official transcripts, memos and documentation which refute any talk of strange goings on in the desert and a manned trip to Mars.

The We Who Sing. Originally in Microcosms, (Benford 2002)

Similar to ‘Sun-Cloud’ in the description of a radically non-human intelligence and lifecycle.

The Gravity Mine. Originally in Asimovs, April 2000

In the deepest of deep, dark futures, intelligent life continues to eke out an existence.

Spindrift. Originally in Asimovs, March 1999

Against political machinations back on Earth, a Soviet astronaut has landed on the moon. In a desperate attempt to be the first on the moon his mission is a one-way one : he is equipped to survive for a long time, and the plan is that in due course another mission will come to bring him back to Earth. But the political situation is such that is seems best for him to remain..

Touching Centauri. Originally in Asimovs, August 2003

When I first read and reviewed it:

    A classy short story, and more evidence to be grateful that Baxter has kept faith with the short story form where others have not. The story reveals itself as addressing the Fermi Paradox, but only slowly. It starts big, and it gets bigger. In the first sentence we are told that Reid Malenfant has ‘poked a hole in the wall of reality’. Malenfant, is at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in front of an audience who are waiting for the returned echo of a laser pulse he fired at the planet Alpha-Centauri A-4 some eight years ago.

    The tension builds, and then fades, as there is no echo. There is confusion, and all are perplexed, save for eccentric scientist Cornelius Taine.

    Baxter gets his info-dumping into the story in an ingenious way, although slightly awkwardly – journalist Kate Manzoni communes with her alter-ego AI, and the discussions between them have more than a whiff of a hint of e-mail exchanges between Baxter and his old mate Arthur C Clarke.

    Manzoni travels to meet Malenfant as more mysterious deep-space events are happening – we have lost contact with the Voyager probes, now outside of our system. And when the outer planets go missing, it would appear that Fermi has been answered : a much, much higher intelligence has had us under observation, and the effect of the laser pulse has been to totally bollix (my phrasing) the computer simulation in which we live.

    The final scenes, in which the assembled family await the onrushing nothingness? are redolent of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, in which the adult humans are faced with the ultimate end.

    Malenfant has appeared in at least one previous short (‘Saddlepoint : Roughneck’ which Dozois collected in his #16), and also in his Manifold:Time series of novels. I’ve not read the novels, so can’t comment on how this story fits in with the novels. Maybe I’ll have to read the novels!

Dreams (II)

The Twelfth Album. Originally in Interzone 130, April 1998

Baxter closes on a somewhat more whimsical note, on an Earth in which the Titanic did not sink on its maiden voyage, and in which The Beatles musical career is slightly different.

Conclusion.

A strong collection of stories grouped around a couple of themes in Baxter’s writing. Not perhaps an ideal introduction to his short writing – a selection of these stories, and others collected in ‘Vacuum Diagrams’, and others from his substantial short SF ouevre not collected in either of these volumes would provide a more representative sample. But, as the Flemish would say, ‘een must’ for anyone who has a fancy for ‘traditional’ hard SF. Baxter’s writing is deceptively classy, smoothly carrying the reader along through rigorous scientific and societal developments, whilst all the time keeping questions about the nature of humanity, and humanity’s place in the universe at the forefront.

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