Stephen Baxter has been on the periphery of my awareness for years. I have read one of his stories, only one, a novella called ‘Starfall’. I enjoyed it and meant to read more. When he published ‘Flood’ and ‘Ark’, I added them to my wish list. Both were exactly the sort of novel I love: post-apocalyptic adventure followed by an exodus to new planets with all the inherent science and problems. Shamefully, I have yet to read either.
When given the opportunity to read ‘Universes’, a collection of short fiction from three of Baxter’s universes, I noted that three of the stories were set in the Flood/Ark universe and subsequently snapped it up. Short stories are a great way to taste the flavour of an author and sample one of their universes. In addition to three stories set in the Flood/Ark universe — one previously unpublished — there are two stories in the Jones & Bennet universe and another three in the Anti-Ice universe. All universes involve hard science and characters devoted to investigating it, which appears to be a trademark of Baxter’s writing. Given he has degrees in mathematics and engineering, it’s hardly surprising.
For the uninitiated, the Jones & Bennet stories are during the cold war era. Chapman Jones and Thelma Bennet work for an organisation known as DS8 or the UK Ministry of Defence Secretariat 8. They investigate uncatalogued phenomena and unusual life forms. Myths and legends. Anti-Ice is an alternate history setting where nineteenth century Earth receives a gift from the stars, a comet bearing anti-matter and alien life forms. The discovery and exploitation of these powers a new industrial revolution and steam-powered rockets!
The stories I’d like to talk about are those set in the Flood/Ark universe. ‘Earth II’, ‘Earth III’ and ‘Earth I’ read like novellas. They are fully encapsulated adventures in short form. Actually, they’re not so short; none of the stories in this anthology are. I did not mind the length, though, as it allowed for a depth of characterisation and plot that really drew me into each universe.
The first story, ‘Earth II’, details the journey of Xaia Windru, a warrior from the Scatter intent on conquering her world. After winning another battle, she follows a rumour to the City of the Living Dead. On the way, she visits the shuttle that reportedly brought the much revered Founders to the planet. She then travels further north to look for the fabled city. Her chapters are interspersed with the gentler point of view of her husband, who is left behind to govern Zeeland. He is being encouraged to preserve the legacy of the Founders, 108 books that will be buried in a subterranean vault. Xaia, on the other hand, is beginning to question her world’s devotion to a handful of refugees who colonised the planet a little over four hundred years before. I really enjoyed the conclusion to this one.
In ‘Earth III’, we visit another colonised planet, this time a thousand years on. Vala and Brod (I really liked Brod) are young and in love but they’re not allowed to be. When they run away together, war follows. Really, their flight is just an excuse for Vala’s father and brother to capture more influence as they spread their religion across the planet. That religion is a strange one; adherents believe they are part of a giant simulation or sim. Their lives directed by the Creators of their avatars. Death shouldn’t matter because they will simply go back into storage. I didn’t get a sense they weren’t afraid of death, though. I think that’s a pretty human trait, regardless of religion. Vala and Brod join the scientist Tripp on a journey to the Antistellar, the dark side of their stationary planet. Discoveries abound.
What I really loved about these two stories was the absolute strangeness of the planets — Earth II has an unusual axial tilt and Earth III has a permanent dark side — and the disparity of the cultures that arose on each. Despite the differences, the people are looking for the same things: answers to their origins and evidence they were not the first intelligent species to inhabit each planet. Both stories end in revolution. New ideas are replacing the old. Destines are forged.
The third, previously unpublished story, ‘Earth I’, is set thousands of years later and, joyfully, ties the first two together. Another set of lovers and scientists embark on a journey to find the answers to the questions Xaia Windru and Tripp asked, about the Founders/Creators and those who came before. LuSi and her mother visit Earth II and Earth III and find them vastly changed. I can’t tell you why, that would spoil the story. I loved imagining what had happened, however, and would like to humbly beg Mr. Baxter to write that novel, the one in between or series, you know, because I’m sure he has the time.
All in all, ‘Universes’ is a gem of a collection. It’s a must for fans and a great introduction for newcomers. It’s a big book and rather than representing a grab bag of stories, it delivers a decent slice of three of the author’s universes. I read the ebook version, as supplied by the publisher, but the hardcover, slip-cased edition from PS Publishing would look very nice on my bookshelf, I think.
Oh, and now I’ve had a taste, I’ll be getting to ‘Flood’ and ‘Ark’ very soon!
(pub: PS Publishing. 405 page hardback. Slipcased, signed hardcover with endpaper art: £59.99 (UK). Jacketed hardcover: £24.99 (UK). ISBN 978-1-848635-94-4 Price: £59.99 (UK))