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Proxima and Ultima: AI, hard sci-fi and multiverse – ALL GOOD. Romans – not so much

Flashes of irritation

By Brid-Aine Parnell, 27 Dec 2014

Page File Fresh from his multiverse world-building with Terry Pratchett in The Long Earth series, Stephen Baxter turns to his own multiverse in the two-book set Proxima and Ultima – a very different hard sci-fi tale.

Proxima starts in the far-flung future, when Earthlings have started making their way out into the immediate galactic neighbourhood, with habitats on planets like Mars and Mercury and mining encampments on asteroids and moons. Humanity is pretty well divided between the haves and the have-nots, who not only don’t have much, but can also be conscripted at a moment’s notice and turfed off-world to serve unending sentences in horrifically harsh environments.

While politically, the Solar System has been divvied up between China and its allies and the UN-allied countries and neither super-power has a particularly light touch with its citizenry. The Earth is more or less done for after a number of “climate Jolts” and the attempts of previous technological societies to get the planet back on course, known as the “Heroic Generation”, although there are still super-rich folks clinging on in the polar regions.

So the stage is set for the human race’s first attempt to properly colonise a habitable world, Proxima C, found orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima. A single astronaut has already been flung into the void on a one-way ticket and an artificial intelligence is getting geared up to go when UN folks on Mercury stumble across something incredible – tiny wormholes that appear to open onto a place of untold energies.

These kernels, as they come to be known, cannot be explained by the boffinry of the time, but being a fairly gung-ho society engaged in a cold war with China, they strap them onto spacecraft so they can make people-carrying colony ships and get to Prox C ahead of their rivals.

To plant the flag, a number of people are swept up and dumped on the planet, then abandoned by the UN astronauts who head home, leaving the unwilling pioneers to make the best of this alien world they call Per Ardua.

Artist

The harrowing and fascinating tale of how these pioneers come to terms with Per Ardua, spliced with the attempts back home to understand kernels and the rising hostility between the UN and China, takes up much of the first novel, Proxima. It’s a properly hard sci-fi tale of space-faring, dwelling and fighting in a dystopian future and it’s a gripping one. Although Baxter isn’t big on deep characterisation, he goes large on interesting and convincing detail and knows just when to slide through a few years quickly to move the plot along.

The whole imagined structure of life on Per Ardua is a compelling read, even if it sometimes seems more like a well-written history book than it does a novel, and the deepening mystery behind the kernels keeps the pages turning. Funnily enough, perhaps the most well-drawn characters in the book are the three artificial intelligences, Angelia, the ship on her way to the Proxima system, Earthshine, the core AI system left behind by previous generations and too powerful and unstoppable to ignore and ColU, the supposedly simple AI left behind with the colonists on Per Ardua.

Their struggles and inner life come across as of more interest to Baxter than that of the humans and each represents a different vision of what artificial intelligence might end up like.

Unfortunately, it all takes a turn for the decidedly odd in the second novel Ultima. Here, our group of travellers manages to end up in a different universe entirely, by going through a Hatch buried in a field of kernels. In this new universe, Rome the empire never ended and the Romans discovered kernels on Earth, far ahead of their own technological progress.

So in this reality, somehow Romans remain much the same, with historical tools, outdated societal structures like slavery and virtually zero understanding of physics and astronomy, but also happen to have spaceships. It’s a fun concept, but it’s too difficult to swallow.

The idea that they would have figured out how to use the kernels as engines and spread out among the stars without ever getting too close to the science behind it all is ridiculous. Even the idea that they wouldn’t change as a people when they became explorers is idiotic, history has proven time and again that expanding a people’s physical horizon changes their mindset, you can’t plausibly be a space-faring nation with an insular viewpoint.

The idea is so much fun, Baxter almost gets away with it and he does have some clever explanations – like the reason they still use swords is because it would be pretty dumb to fire a gun inside a spaceship. When the group shifts once more to an Inca-led society, you just sort of go with it, but without the central mystery of just where these kernels and Hatches come from and what they’re really for, the historic mish-mash would probably be a bit too irritating.

As it is, you can get through on mild incredulity and periodic flashes of irritation while you wonder to yourself where the hell they’re charging their “slates” (which sound like fondleslabs to me) once they’ve left our Universe behind and spent decades in the historic ones. ®

Ultima book coverAuthor Stephen Baxter
Title Proxima / Ultima
Publisher Gollancz / Orion Publishing Group
Price £5.99 (eBook) / £8.99 (Paperback)
More info Author web site

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