World Engines Destroyer by Stephen Baxter (book review).

April 14, 2020 | By | Reply More

While editing this review, I realised that a lot of it sounds quite negative, so to put things in context I enjoyed ‘World Engines Destroyer’ and am absolutely looking forward to the sequel. With that out of the way, let’s try to summarise this book which is tricky because right to the end I never quite got a handle on what the story was about or where it would go next. In fact, I’d say that a large part of the book’s appeal comes from these sudden shifts in direction, meaning I really don’t want to give any spoilers.

Despite a mistake meaning the blurb on the inside cover doesn’t match what happens in the story, it and the back page do basically tell you that this story is about Astronaut Colonel Reid Malenfant, who everyone calls Malenfant, a name which never becomes easier to accept. Anyway, Malenfant is frozen after an accident in 2019 and thawed out in 2469 when his wife, who died in 2005, somehow makes contact asking for his help.

It’s a strong setup and makes for one of the best opening chapters I’ve read in a long time, because you already know you’re going to keep reading and find out how this will be resolved. However, calling back to what I said about not being able to get a handle on the story, despite receiving a distress call from the woman he presumably loves/loved, Malenfant then does absolutely nothing about this plotline until page 227, almost half-way through the book.

Even then – don’t worry, no spoilers – things continue to not go the way you expect, with abrupt shifts in what you think the story is about or the scale of events. On the one hand, this is somewhat on par for the course with the sort of grand, high-concept SF that I associate Baxter with, but it makes for frequent ‘wait, what?’ moments and the feel that characters are dragged through events with very little agency.

Which brings me to Malenfant, who is quite frankly a bit of a prat. One of the themes of the book is that only he, as an outsider to this time, can kick things off and get things done, but you certainly don’t get that feeling for the first half of the book. Obviously, waking up 500ish years in the future would be something of a shock and it’s fair that everyone and everything you knew being gone would be traumatic.

But rather than exploring this incredible new world or learning the events that lead to it or, you know, trying to save his wife who specifically called for his help, Malenfant decides to mope and moan and flop around like a teenager on a Sunday afternoon. Even when he’s over this, Malenfant is consistently mean and rude to everyone else around him and remains desperately in need of a slap.

Something else which might affect your enjoyment is the quirky way the book regularly stops to spend an entire chapter detailing the backstory of each newly introduced character. Again, no spoilers, but new, entirely unexpected, characters keep being added to the cast to the very end and, every single time this happens, the author halts the plot to delve into their background in deep detail.

As I read ‘World Engines Destroyer’, I kept thinking this was an odd thing for the author to do, because a lot of what they tell you is basically irrelevant to the plot. But seeing the author’s extensive research list at the back of the book suggests that Baxter has really, really looked into all this stuff and he’s damn well going to share it with you. In the end, I began treating the book as something of a relaxed exercise in world-building, where the hows and whats behind events are just as important as the whys.

So, to sum up ‘World Engines Destroyer’, I’d say it’s grand scale SF which doesn’t exactly have twists but does continuously wrong foot you. I’d suggest it be enjoyed as an accomplished author laying out his grand world-building, rather than for a focused plot. I’d say that its book one in a story in which I have absolutely no idea what will happen next but am definitely curious to find out.

Malenfant is still a prat, though.

Stuart Maine

April 2020

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(pub: Gollancz, 2019. 557 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-473-22317-2)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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