06 July 2006

Transcendent by Stephen Baxter

reviewed by Finn Dempster

The Die-back: a struggling Humanity's name for the gradual erosion of Earth's environment through global warming. The governments of this uncomfortably near future are taking partially successful steps to halt this, or at least to treat the symptoms, and most people, jaded middle-aged widower Michael Poole included, are content to accept this compromised solution. Poole is jolted out of his complacency by his son's near-fatal involvement in a Die-back induced explosion of hydrate gases under the Earth's polar caps, and he begins to investigate the possibility of using his engineering expertise to ease the struggling planet's burden ... a task made no easier by recurrent, fleeting visitations of his dead wife and a fraught relationship with his son.

Enough ingredients already for an dramatic tale, you might say, and I'd agree. Baxter goes somewhat further. Alongside Poole's story we get that of Alia, a teenage girl born on a spaceship half a million years in the future. The Commonwealth, government of this galaxy-sprawling future humanity, sends recruitment agent Reath to Alia on behalf of its mysterious undertaking the Trancendence -- the accrual of a telepathically connected mass of handpicked individuals whose collective consciousness is itself giving rise to a new, godlike mind. Alia travels the galaxy with Reath as part of her induction, her narrative linked to Poole's by her adherence to the Commonwealth-mandated ritual of Witnessing (itself part of a larger endeavour called the Redemption), whereby she can view Poole at any point in his life.

This successful and ambitious novel is the third in a trilogy that began with the Arthur C Clarke Award-nominated Coalescent and continued with Exultant (this trilogy itself forms part of the ongoing "Xeelee Sequence" series). I'll confess straight away that most of those passed me by, but stay with me: I've done my research. Baxter, it would appear, goes Supersize in whichever area of his output you care to investigate, whether that be time, space, or theme. Here he's selected three biggies -- Family, Evolution and Theology -- and set them against the aforementioned backdrop of near-infinity.

The first part of Alia's story is almost a picaresque, with Alia and the reader getting a guided tour of various colonised planets and their technically still-human inhabitants. Alia is largely passive during much of this, taking something of a backseat whilst Baxter speculates in a fairly free-roaming way about how humanity might change biologically if given enough strange environments and time. This would appear to be a favourite theme of Baxter's, and it's this enthusiasm, combined with a knack for speculating convincingly along these lines in remarkable, almost frenzied directions (my favourites were the occupants of the desert planet Baynix 11, who've ditched their carbon-based bodies for slower silicon models which leave them resembling motionless, man-shaped monoliths) that leaves you quite willing to forgive the amount of time he spends doing so, and the fact that it takes a while before Alia becomes a more active participant in her own story.

Michael, bless him, has all the makings of a spectacularly dull leading man, but his ordinariness forms the perfect counterweight to the spiralling speculations of Alia's narrative. Similarly, he plays off well against some of the stranger characters in his own timeline; both the intriguing and eccentric AI Gea, and Michael Poole's mysterious Aunt Rosa (the main character in the series' previous book, Coalescent) acquire a degree of believability through sharing the page with Poole. True, not all the characters are as well-realised; Alia's sister is relegated for much of the novel to the thankless role of passive hanger-on and occasional dialogue-facilitator, and Poole's brother John remains sadly two-dimensional. I could give other examples, but not many, since Baxter's characterisation is generally solid, and in any case his stage direction is deft enough to ensure that the spotlight remains for the most part on the two characters we care most about.

Baxter is presented with a particular problem in telling Michael's story, and his method of resolving it represents another of the novel's few weak areas. He assumes, reasonably enough I suppose, that his readers have a limited working knowledge of geological engineering. Since this is integral to Michael's story, Baxter has to convey the essentials to us in some way or another, and his method of choice is to throw his characters into a meeting room with at least one person present who needs things explained to them. This approach works -- we learn what we need to know -- but it makes for functional rather than electrifying prose and occasionally teeters perilously on the brink of direct exposition. Baxter also occasionally commits the cardinal sci-fi sin of throwing in gimmicky technology for its own sake: we probably didn't need quite so much on Smart Paint, the issue of parents modifying their children's genes in the womb is raised but Baxter doesn't really run with it, and Alia's ability to "Skim" (to teleport by effort of will) serves little purpose beyond a possible homage to Bester's The Stars My Destination. Put all this down to over-exuberance rather than self-indulgence on Baxter's part; at worst these things are minor distractions, off-set by at least as many effective, evocative descriptions: "humans moving out from Earth had found themselves in a sky full of old worlds, like children tiptoeing through the dusty rooms of a dilapidated mansion" (p. 106).

There's a lot of fun to be had here. Yes, there are plenty of flaws, but Baxter's trying to do a lot here, and if he's picked up fifty balls and only managed to juggle forty, he's still earned a slap on the back. Having recommended this book, however, I'm going to include the caveat that it probably isn't intended to be read in isolation from the rest of the series. Presumably Baxter is happy for readers unfamiliar with his earlier tomes to partake of his prose without first going back and reading the entirety of the Xeelee sequence (although presumably he wouldn't object to that either), but there's a polite expectation, I feel, that you'll pick up Trancendent with at least Exultant and preferably Coalescent already under your belt. The narrative seemed to assume some familiarity on my part with certain characters and organisations, and I got the impression Baxter had too much on his plate (or too many balls in the air) to waste time shoe-horning back-story into his narrative for the benefit of us dawdlers turning up for the third act. It works fine on its own -- in fact it works great -- but get hold of the earlier novels first if you can.

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