To my mind, Stephen Baxter is one of Britain’s finest living authors of hard Science Fiction. Like Sir Arthur C. Clarke, with whom he co-wrote the ‘Time Odyssey’ trilogy nearly twenty years ago, Baxter is adept at taking recent astrophysical and aerospace research findings and turning them into fascinating plot points in his books. ‘Galaxias’ includes a five-page afterword in which he summarises his key sources, providing exact references so that nerds like me can look the papers up for ourselves. Best of all, though, this research is put to the service of an exciting story that kept me turning the pages from beginning to end.
The narrative starts on Friday 5 January 2057 at 9:48am UK time, just as a solar eclipse is about to reach its maximum. In Newcastle, where the English Government relocated after London was flooded due to climate change, civil servant Tash Brand has just finished an overnight shift in the office of science minister Fred Bowles. As she’s walking home across the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the sun suddenly vanishes from the sky, leaving her and everyone around her in total darkness.
Her first thought is that this is a particularly powerful solar eclipse. Then she remembers the eclipse isn’t supposed to be visible from anywhere in the UK. Indeed, an astronomer friend from her student days, Mel Kapur, who now works for the English Astronomer Royal, a feisty woman called Charlie Marlow, is watching the eclipse from onboard an aircraft flying just to the south of Africa, as that’s where in the world totality will best be visible. So what’s going on? Tash calls Mel, who confirms they’re both seeing the same effect. At the moment of totality, the Sun wasn’t just temporarily hidden behind the Moon. When the Moon kept moving in its orbit round the Earth, light didn’t return. Somehow, the Sun has disappeared.
Over the next twenty-four hours, we start to see the dramatic consequences of losing the Sun’s light, heat and gravitational field at the centre of our solar system. The Earth, locked in constant darkness, starts to cool, while global weather patterns go haywire. Spacecraft start to drift out of position, with those that are dependent on solar power quickly running out of energy.
Governments around the world are left scrabbling to work out what’s happened, what the worst impacts will be and what they can possibly do in response. Before they’ve really got into their stride, though, the Sun returns, exactly one day after it disappeared, to the second. Even so, many of the effects of the Sun’s day-long absence, which becomes known as ‘The Blink’, are not reversible, even if superficially things seem to be broadly back to normal.
Plus, on top of the physical effects of the Blink, a much bigger issue needs to be addressed. Who was responsible for the Sun’s temporary disappearance, given that what happened was clearly not a natural phenomenon? Most importantly, what message were they trying to convey to humanity and what should our response be?
I was fascinated by the thought experiment that sits at the heart of this book. Baxter imagines that some form of powerful alien intelligence, the nature of which is left undefined, notices humanity’s early steps into space and decides to send us a blunt message that we are not alone in the Universe and that they are incredibly powerful. Fair enough, but what are we supposed to do with that information? Should we take it as a warning and stop any spacefaring activities? Or should we take it as a challenge and accelerate our efforts to become a multi-planet species? The story explores these and other responses in a dramatic way, at the level of individuals and of governments. Suffice it to say, our capacity for rational discussion and debate, leading to agreed actions, is severely tested by this experience. Faced with a massive external threat, the world seems to retreat into the geopolitics of the Cold War, with the most powerful countries pretending to cooperate but keeping their real plans to themselves.
We see much of the story through the eyes of our two main protagonists, Tash Brand and Mel Kapur, as they accompany their political bosses to a seemingly endless succession of governmental meetings, called to discuss the world’s response to this crisis. This is both a strength and weakness of the way Baxter has chosen to tell this tale. The strength is that the privileged positions held by Tash and Mel allow the reader to listen in on the negotiations and arguments between the world’s leaders, enabling us to see the political drama unfold at first hand and in real time. The weakness is that there are a lot of these meetings throughout the book and, like their real-life counterparts, they are pretty static affairs, consisting largely of lots of people sitting in a conference room, talking to or at each other. Since my job occasionally involves sitting in meetings like this, albeit about rather less dramatic subject matter, I found this part of the story fascinating. However, I can imagine that some readers may get frustrated at the lack of action in these chapters.
The relationships between Tash, Mel and their close friends and colleagues help to personalise this planet-scale drama. Through this lens, we see the impacts that the Blink has on ordinary people, from the everyday problems caused by new weather patterns through to the psychological effects that follow from finding out we’re not alone in the universe. As with the geopolitical impacts, it turns out that this dramatic instance of first contact with aliens has huge and very varied effects on the great mass of humanity.
I’ve read many first contact stories in my time but few have been as unsettling as ‘Galaxias’. To be confronted by clear evidence that we’re not alone and that the responsible party has incredible power, yet to be left unclear what we’re supposed to do as a result of the message they’ve sent us, is not a scenario I’d like humanity to be confronted with in reality. To face it in fiction, on the other hand, has been fascinating, if also a bit scary. ‘Galaxias’ is another tour-de-force for Stephen Baxter and I’d warmly recommend it to every fan of hard Science Fiction.
(pub: Gollancz, 2021. 523 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK), $26.99 (US), $34.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-473-22885-6)