Bite-size Bax­ter bril­liance

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re­leased 18 au­gust 320 pages | Hard­back/pa­per­back/ebook Au­thor stephen Bax­ter Pub­lisher gol­lancz

The work rate is prodi­gious. Over the past decade or so, Stephen Bax­ter has turned out at least two books every year. It’s an out­put that calls to mind the Golden Age writ­ers, whose stan­dard of liv­ing was de­pen­dent on main­tain­ing a cer­tain churn rate.

At which point, we’re get­ting dan­ger­ously close to la­belling Bax­ter as a hack when, in re­al­ity, noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. We think we’ve made this point be­fore, but while the younger Bax­ter of­ten didn’t nail char­ac­ter in the same way as he nailed drama­tis­ing even the most ar­cane branches of sci­ence, this hasn’t been true for a while now.

The short sto­ries in Bax­ter’s lat­est col­lec­tion pro­vide ev­i­dence for this as­ser­tion. They cover the years from 2008-16 and there sim­ply isn’t a duf­fer amongst them. That isn’t to say they’re per­fect. The first story, for in­stance, “On Chyrse Plain”, the tale of a col­li­sion in the skies above Mars and its af­ter­math (one of four based in Bax­ter’s Prox­ima uni­verse) is al­most un­done by a rather sen­ti­men­tal para­graph or two at the end. As to why that’s a par­tic­u­lar pity, it’s be­cause (with­out giv­ing too much away) the bit with the rocket sig­nal is so bril­liantly ex­e­cuted.

Else­where, there are sto­ries that show’s Bax­ter fond­ness for al­ter­nate his­tory, such as “Fate And The Fire-lance”, which de­tails a time­line in which the Byzan­tine Em­pire never fell and de­serves sin­gling out for its sheer am­bi­tion; and the kind of fu­ture-fic we as­so­ciate with the Bax­ter name.

But if you had to choose any­where to start, you could do far worse than read a tale filed in the book’s con­tents un­der “Present Day”. “The Pe­va­tron Rats” from 2009, a tale of strange go­ings-on at a re­search es­tab­lish­ment, is sur­real, funny and, at mo­ments, gen­uinely creepy – es­pe­cially if you don’t like ro­dents… Jonathan Wright

Sur­real, funny and, at mo­ments, creepy

Bax­ter will be giv­ing a talk on HG Wells in Wok­ing on 21 Septem­ber, cel­e­brat­ing the 150th an­niver­sary of Wells’ birth.

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