Tuesday 2 December 2014

Book Review | Ultima by Stephen Baxter

The hatches we discovered on Per Ardua were only the beginning. Bizarre gateways of alien design that allowed us to step across light years, they opened up the galaxy to us. They took us elsewhere and elsewhen, into a universe of futures and pasts that we could barely have imagined.

And we stumbled across a plan. A plan that stretched from the beginning of time to its end. A plan that needed us. Well, some of us. Now we have discovered just how small a part we play. It is time to change that.


Worlds and times collide in the concluding volume of the absorbing duology Proxima kicked off: "a story that encompasses everything that will be and everything that could have been," just as Ultima's flap copy claims, but fails, I'm afraid, to take in the little things—not least characters we care about—in much the same way as its intellectually thrilling yet emotionally ineffectual predecessor.

Ultima ultimately advances Stephen Baxter's ambitious origin-of-everything from the nearest star to Earth at the inception of existence to the end of time on the absolute farthest, but first, the fiction insists on exploring, at length, what the galaxy would look like in terms of technology if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen in the fifth century.

When we last accompanied Proxima's protagonist, Yuri Eden had just travelled through the portal he chanced upon at the pole of Per Ardua, which planet he and hundreds of other unfortunates had been given little choice but to colonise. The very fact of the Hatch changes everything, however; it is, after all, evidence of alien intelligence. But what do these beings want—whatever, wherever or whenever they may be?

Ultima opens on the other side of the Per Arduan portal with, rather than an answer, a deflection in a dead lanaguage—or, according to the ColU, "a lineal descendant of classical Latin anyhow." (p.21) The speaker of this strange tongue introduces himself as Quintus Fabius, centurion of the star vessel Malleus Jesu, and sets about doing what any good centurion would do: taking Yuri and his companion Stef Kalinski prisoner.

Apparently, the Hatch has deposited the pair into a parallel universe where the development of the Roman Empire has continued essentially unchecked. That said, a few forces do oppose them—particularly the Xin, an analogue of Earth's Eastern peoples, who exist squarely in the background of this book:
Though other polities have come and gone, those two great poles of power have competed for control of the great landmasses of Asia and Europa for two thousand years. And for the last thousand years or more they have contended over the territories of the rest of the world also. The only significant exception has been [...] the Brikanti. (p.74)
The Brikanti are basically the Brits of Baxter's future history, and it's in the company of these underdogs that Ultima's other central characters—including Yuri's distressed daughter Beth and Stef's impossible twin sister Penny—find themselves caught in the crossfire of "an endless three-way war, now extended out into the solar system." (p.83) But this fight is not the fiction's focus, for there are metaphysical issues to consider:
Even if they could figure out how history had diverged to deliver this strange new outcome, there was a deeper question of why. Why this history—why the change now? And how had [Stef] and her companions survived the transformation of human destiny? (p.56)
Though he doesn't play as large a part in this generational epic as he did in its more attentive predecessor, Yuri himself asks the question that suggests Ultima's eventual interests: "What's it all for?" he wonders aloud to to his constant mechanical companion. "Do you ever get the feeling we're missing the big picture here, ColU? All the strangeness—the kernels, the Hatches, the dumping of whole histories" (p.139)—must be in service of something, mustn't it?

I'll say this: it is. And it is... incredible. "In a way, you see, [Ultima] is the story of life, in this universe," (p.506) which is an ambition nearly unequalled. Alas, Baxter's big-picture pivot comes at a cost, and it's character—a problem in Proxima not at all solved in its sequel. If anything, Ultima magnifies this misstep by exponentially expanding the cast without taking the time to develop connections between us and the array of new folks we're faced with.

Evidently, Baxter expects us to care about them because they're there, and on occasion because of a surname several share, but we don't, and we won't—not until the last act, at least: one of the precious few sections of the text which recalls the pensive pace and relative personality of Proxima.

Ultima is worlds apart from its predecessor in narrative terms, too. It has so much more to do, so many more pieces of the proverbial puzzle to set up, that it feels distracted—scattershot as opposed to purposeful, like Proxima. This is a particularly difficulty in the beginning, which drags dreadfully in lieu of a throughline as simple and sympathetic as Yuri's struggle to survive the fascinating challenges posed by Per Ardua.

Thankfully, Ultima does come together eventually. It takes leagues too long, but by the end, Baxter is at his best again, and if I'm honest, his best is so brilliant that I'd be prepared to push through markedly more tedium to find one of science fiction's finest on form:
"If the universe is to be brief in duration—well, it is beautiful nonetheless, and deserves to be apprehended to the full. To be appreciated, to be studied and cherished, from beginning to end." 
"It is monstrous," the ColU said. "It is magnificent." (pp.519-520)
As is Ultima: a bigger and more ambitious book than its predecessor, yes, but not necessarily a better one—not until the very end. Less patient science fiction fans need not apply, but determined readers may rest assured that their efforts will be richly rewarded.


by Stephen Baxter

UK & US Publication: November 2014, Gollancz

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