Something Coming Through
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