Stephen Baxter. Starfall. PS Publishing 2009.

After bemoaning Baxter’s recent focus on alternate history in the Feb 2010 issue of Asimovs, and reflecting on the halcyon days of his XeeLee sequence, I realised I had a review PDF of ‘Starfall’ sitting on my computer. An hour or so later, the novella is read….

Baxter is virtually unparalleled in the way he does far future, hard SF, and space opera. There is the occasional awkward touch of Arthur C. Clarke in the way he provides helpful description of technology to the reader (“..The Facula was a GUTdrive starship. ‘GUT’ stood for ‘Grand Unified Theory’..”), and characterisation is generally fairly sketchy, but these are minor quibbles.

The story starts AD4771, with humanity have spread over a number of relatively close stars, but with the wormhole technology used to spread this far having been taken offline by Sol, under a religious regime that is keen to constrain us to this part of the galaxy, and to the use of close-to-lightspeed travel. The other worlds see themselves as being under ayoke of oppression, and Starfall is the codename for the project which is to launch an attack on Sol. It’s a long-term, long-distance attack, to be carried out in several waves – firstly through a computer virus, then through a hollowed-out asteroid which is to make a stealth attack (so long in its journey it is in effect a generation starship), then through attack ships, then through suicide ships which will offer the final threat of a relatavistic kamikaze impact on Earth.

We follow each of these missions through individuals involved in them, including, charmingly, the youthful computer virus let loose on the target solar system. We also see the other side of the equation, those of Sol, which include one person who has reservations on their military role subjugating colonists, and his First Officer, who has no such qualms in dispensing with the velvet glove and using the iron fist.

The story is progressed as the attack grows nearer, and each element of the mission is detailed as they strike home. However, this is all a lead-in to the closing pages, when the nature of the Empress is revealed, with reference to the previous XeeLee stories and characters. And finally, the disturbing shape taking place at the Earth’s core is seen as a foretaste ofpotent threat to the future : it’s a XeeLee spaceship. And in the final sentence or two, humanity comes across the Squeem..

Baxter’s official website has aTimeline, which serves as an indication of the breadth of scope of Baxter’s stories, and makes this reader wonder whether he has two or more brains in his head! If people of my age are ever allowed to retire from work, I’ll be setting out a couple of months to pull all the stories and novels together and work my way through this timeline! You can order the book from PS Publishing’s website

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