The Spacetime Pit Plus Two by Stephen Baxter and Eric Brown (book review).

I’ve been a fan of Eric Brown’s character-based Science Fiction and Stephen Baxter’s hard SF stories for many years but had no idea that these two luminaries of British SF had ever collaborated. So when I heard that the small press Infinity Plus Books was bringing out ‘The Spacetime Pit Plus Two’, a book collection together for the first time, three stories they wrote jointly in the 1990s, I was keen to read it.

The book, which has a wonderful cover image by Johan Swanepoel, opens with a brief introductory essay from Eric Brown, in which he talks about his experiences of collaborating with several writers, before recounting the history of these particular pieces. I enjoyed the scene-setting and found it useful in putting the stories into context.

First up is ‘The Spacetime Pit’, which won the Interzone Readers’ Poll Award for the best short story published in that magazine during 1996. It tells the tale of Katerina Wake, an independent contractor who is paid to survey exoplanets at the edge of known space and report back on their potential value for mining, colonisation, scientific study or anything else that might make the journey to reach them worthwhile. For her last job, before heading back to Earth for some well-deserved family time, she decides to pilot her mothership’s small shuttle down to the surface of the potentially habitable planet she’s orbiting to see just how suitable it really is to be a colony world.

When the shuttle has a major systems failure on the way down, she’s forced to jettison herself in an escape pod. She awakens to a nightmare. The pod has kept her in an enforced coma for two years while it treated the injuries she sustained in the emergency landing. There’s no sign of anyone coming to rescue her. The shuttle wreck has been over-run by indigenous plants during that time and is now irrecoverable. Most serious of all, every item of flora and fauna she can see around her turns out to be based on silicon, not carbon, making it useless as a source of food. With just five days rations to keep her going, things look bleak.

Except that Wake is an engineer and she never gives up without a fight. How can she use the escape pod and whatever she can find around her, to get back to her orbiting mothership and thus home, however long that takes?

This story was published less than a year after the first discovery of a planet outside our own Solar system, so its timing was either fortuitous or well-judged. Even two decades later, when exoplanet discoveries now number in the thousands, the scope and vision of this short piece are awe-inspiring. It’s an excellent illustration of the value of collaborative storytelling, as Baxter’s rigorous attention to scientific and engineering realities are seamlessly married to Brown’s interest in the interior life of our main character. Between them, they have produced here a deeply sympathetic protagonist, a fascinating setting and a seemingly intractable central challenge. Watching how they develop all three right through to the final conclusion provides a masterclass in the art of short SF.

The central story in this collection, rather like the filling in a sandwich, is different in both quantity and quality from the pieces on either side. ‘Green-Eyed Monster’ was published in the magazine ‘Spectrum SF’ in the year 2000 and is a dark comedy. One evening, a drunk man called Richard encounters a strange metallic Frisbee about a metre in diameter on his way back from the pub. It is half-buried in the ground and it’s glowing.

In his sozzled state, he thinks nothing of it and continues home. However, it gives him odd dreams during the night and, when he wakes the following morning, he finds that his mind has been transferred into the body of his daughter’s pet toad! Consequently, his own body lies dead on the sofa. Richard is still trying to make sense of what has happened to him when another bombshell hits. After finding his body, his seemingly unconcerned wife Anne calls an ambulance, then immediately rings a man called David. Their conversation makes clear that they have been conducting an illicit affair right under Richard’s nose. Now that he’s a toad, what can Richard do to get his revenge? Baxter and Brown have concocted a slight but amusing tale here, filled with intriguing details that bring the piece to life. There are some interesting philosophical reflections interspersed through the text and the dry humour makes it an easy read. Ultimately, this is a less substantial story than the other two in this collection. That’s no bad thing, as it provides a valuable contrast in pace and tone across the book.

‘Sunfly’ is the earliest of these three pieces to appear in print, having been published in the one 100th issue of ‘Interzone’ in 1995. It is set on a strange, artificial world, a habitable ribbon orbiting a central star. Onara is a gifted apprentice scholar who gets frustrated by the unwillingness of her tutors to answer her questions about the unusual weather conditions that have recently appeared in their normally static environment. These theoretical concerns are made concrete, however, when her boyfriend Kallis announces his intention to head south with the rest of the hunters, following the herd of hornbeasts which are their prey and which appear to be migrating to escape the coming weather front. He asks her to abandon her education and go with him.

Before she has time to make her decision, though, her own tutor starts to explain to her what little the scholars understand about the change that’s coming. He tells Onara that she has an important part in their plans to address it. What should she do: satisfy her intellectual need to understand what is happening to her world, or follow her heart and flee with her boyfriend? This story owes an obvious debt to Larry Niven’s 1970 novel ‘Ringworld’. Brown and Baxter have done what all good storytellers do, though, taking an old concept and making it into something new by asking a ‘What if?’ question.

The result here is fascinating and enjoyable on many different levels. What starts as a Romeo and Juliet-like tale of forbidden love turns into something far more original and profound by its end, as Onara sees beyond the limited understand of her tutors, realises the true nature of their world and recognises that only by embracing this truth will her people survive and flourish in the long term. This is another great example of the benefits of collaboration, as we again see Baxter’s hard SF chops married to Brown’s focus on character. The world-building is excellent, providing an entirely believable setting within which the three-way tussle between Onara, her tutor and her lover can take place. The revelations that take place towards the end of the story are fascinating and unexpected, yet they follow logically from everything that has come before.

There’s really only one criticism that I can make of this collection, and that is that it is too short! On the basis of these three pieces, I would love to see more collaborations between Baxter and Brown, as their approaches to writing SF complement each other perfectly. Given that the last of these pieces was published eighteen years ago, that wish may be in vain. However, as Brown talks in the introduction about multiple other collaborations he has undertaken since and given that Baxter has collaborated with such luminaries as Arthur C. Clarke and, in recent years, Terry Pratchett, perhaps some further joint work in future is not out of the question.

If you like SF but you’ve not read anything by Eric Brown or Stephen Baxter before, ‘The Spacetime Pit Plus Two’ would be a great introduction to their work. If you are a fan of either author or both, you should definitely pick up a copy of this collection. It provides three excellent examples of what can happen when two talented authors work together to produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Highly recommended.

Patrick Mahon

November 2018

(pub: Infinity Plus Books. 124 page paperback. Price: £ 6.99 (UK). ISBN 978-0-99575-225-2. eBook: £ 1.99 (UK).

check out websites: www.infinityplus.co.uk , www.ericbrown.co.uk and www.stephenbaxter.co.uk

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