Some­thing Com­ing Through

SFX - - Planet of the Apes Merchandise - Jonathan Wright

Aliens lay waste to the So­lar Sys­tem in Stephen Bax­ter’s lat­est space opera.

RE­LEASED OUT NOW! 352 pages | Hard­back/ebook/au­dio­book Au­thor Stephen Bax­ter Pub­lisher Gol­lancz

It was 1986 when Stephen Bax­ter wrote his first Xeelee story. Pub­lished in In­ter­zone, “The Xeelee Flower” in­tro­duced read­ers to a su­per-ad­vanced and an­cient alien civil­i­sa­tion, but kept them off-stage. In nine sub­se­quent nov­els and nu­mer­ous short sto­ries, Bax­ter has never re­ally al­lowed us to see the Xeelee clearly. As he told SFX late last year, “You see their works, you see their ships…”

With his new duol­ogy, he says he’s go­ing to reveal the Xeelee. More­over, he’s go­ing to bring the se­quence to a fi­nal res­o­lu­tion, “as much as you can with these things [when] it’s set in a mul­ti­verse”.

To do this, Bax­ter has re­turned to en­gi­neer Michael Poole, “a vi­sion­ary who usu­ally does more harm than good with his gi­gan­tic projects”. Case in point, Xeelee:

Vengeance be­gins with Poole out near Jupiter in the year 3646, work­ing on the con­struc­tion of a worm­hole gate. The un­der­ly­ing ra­tio­nale is to help hu­man­ity move be­yond the So­lar Sys­tem. A no­ble idea. But in­stead, a “sy­camore seed craft” comes through. The Xeelee have en­tered the So­lar Sys­tem and, as a pre­lude to an in­ter-species con­flict that will last for mil­len­nia, they’re not here to make friends. In­stead, af­ter a brief so­journ in the Sun to em­pha­sise just how alien they are, the Xeelee lay waste to hu­man­ity’s home planet sys­tem.

It’s a task they set about with re­morse­less ef­fi­ciency, and much of the novel con­cerns hu­man­ity’s ef­forts to fight back. But our species is hope­lessly out­gunned by a species with el­dritch tech­nol­ogy that makes it near im­per­vi­ous to at­tack. Bad news for hu­man­ity, but great news for those who like their SF nov­els served up with plenty of spec­ta­cle. With­out giv­ing too much away, if you want a ring­side seat as plan­ets are mulched, this is cer­tainly the novel for you.

Look past the spec­ta­cle and ad­ven­ture, how­ever, and there’s an un­der­ly­ing melan­choly to the book. Bax­ter shows us a ver­dant Earth where hu­man­ity has reined back from An­thro­pocene-era ex­cesses and lives in vast tow­ers so as to leave space for the rest of na­ture, just to show us that global warm­ing may not be the worst prob­lem we have to deal with.

Not that Poole spends too much time on such re­flec­tions. As the priv­i­leged son of a vastly rich fam­ily who’s at the epi­cen­tre of con­flict and has just dis­cov­ered, thanks to the strange­ness of time travel, that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will ven­er­ate him as a hero, he’s far too busy be­ing the cen­tre of his own ad­ven­ture. This makes him a mes­sianic char­ac­ter who needs un­der­cut­ting, a task Bax­ter as­signs to la­conic pi­lot Ni­cola Emry.

It makes for a neat dou­ble act, but also one that flags up the book’s big­gest weak­ness in that it’s a re­la­tion­ship that at times seems to run on rails. To para­phrase David Bowie, she’s un­cer­tain if she likes him, but you’d guess she re­ally loves him. Like­wise, Poole’s re­la­tion­ship with his over­bear­ing father, Harry Poole – a char­ac­ter that may have you think­ing of Arthur Da­ley gone oli­garch – doesn’t throw up enough sur­prises. At mo­ments, it’s as if Bax­ter, whose early nov­els weren’t strong on nu­ances of char­ac­ter, has, in re­turn­ing to the Xeelee uni­verse, also re­turned to an ear­lier it­er­a­tion of him­self.

Bet­ter to fo­cus on the thrills and the sense of ad­ven­ture on of­fer. To re­turn to Bax­ter’s in­ter­view with

SFX, he thought his read­er­ship wanted to see Poole ver­sus the Xeelee. Xeelee: Vengeance sets this up splen­didly and does so in a book with a sense of grandeur few other SF nov­el­ists can even hope to match.

Stephen Bax­ter will be a key­note speaker at an Arthur C Clarke cen­te­nary con­fer­ence in Can­ter­bury on 9 De­cem­ber.

You get a ring­side seat as plan­ets are mulched

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