The third volume of Stephen Baxter's Destiny's Children sequence, 2005's Transcendent, seemed so effective a copestone we might wonder what a fourth book could add. The answer is: a fix-up of eighteen previously-published short stories (and one new one) arranged in the chronological order dictated by Baxter's Xeelee future-history. Resplendent trips light-fantastically from AD 5301 to AD 1,000,000, roams over Earth and throughout the galaxy, and covers wars against the Qax, the Silver Ghosts, and finally the Xeelee. Short linking passages tie these diverse tales together with the loosely overarching perspective of an all-but-immortal Pharaoh figure called Luru Parz, a name which—perhaps because of Baxter's own Liverpool provenance—incongruously kept putting me in mind of Cilla Black ("we're gonna have a luru luru parz in this book, I promise yer that").
In other words Resplendent is not so much a climax to Destiny's Children as a detailed recapitulation of its themes, a revisiting of, and addition of detail and density to, Baxter's Xeelee supernarrative. As such it is characteristic Baxter: immensely readable, thought-provoking, crammed with ideas, and frequently sense-of-wonderful. On the downside, the experience of reading these stories falls a long way short of being a smooth narrative experience. But of course this is something inherent in the fix-up, that distinctively SFnal contribution to the formal architecture of the novel. Fix-ups, from Foundation to Accelerando, tend to be idea-dense, exhilaratingly rapid if skittery and strobe-like reading experiences. Like a lunch of Mars Bars and Seven-Up (and you know your Mum gave you that money for proper meat-and-potatoes) fix-ups can leave you giddy and slightly jittered, but not satiated. So much happens!—but the focus is too tenuous. So many ideas!—but without a narrative substrate of sufficient thickness to anchor them.
Baxter is clearly aware of this difficulty, and there are a number of ways in which he attempts to address the fundamental friable bitty-ness of the fix-up. One is the figure of Lorra Parfz herself, who though she appears in only a couple of stories nevertheless provides an italicised paragraph of commentary at the end of every one (she played a role in the second Destiny's Children novel, Exultant, too). But this is, to be honest, a tenuous trope; her connection to most of these stories does not exist, and we don't care enough about her for her linking narrative to have the heft it needs.
On the other hand, like Heinlein or Niven, Baxter has now written so much of his supernarrative that it is starting to acquire a solidly convincing independent existence. For the proper Baxter fan (the true "Bax-phile") these stories don't stand alone; they fit into an ongoing multi-volume roman fleuve. Most of the stories here were published in Asimov's or various short-story collections, except for three that first appeared as stand-alone novellas dressed in the livery of Pete Crowther's excellent PS Press: "Reality Dust" (2000), "Riding the Rock" (2002), and "Mayflower II" (2004). The first and last of these are amongst the best things Baxter has ever written (full disclosure: I wrote the introduction to "Mayflower II", and Baxter is a friend of mine). "Reality Dust" balances Good Hard SF set soon after humanity's liberation from the Qax with a number of brilliantly weird ideas (sentient bacteria that learn to move sideways through dimensions; a surreal dust-built island of pure reality in the middle of a vast entropic sea), and brings it all together into a satisfying and thought-provoking conclusion . . . and all in under 50 pages. "Mayflower II" is perhaps even better; a generation-starship story, in which Baxter's expertise in sliding down a form of logarithmic-scale narrative is simply marvellous to behold. The protagonist, given Qax "immortality" treatment, watches his fellow travellers grow old and die, and then watches generations pass with increasing apparent-rapidity. The early sections of the story give us human-scale details, several pages covering a few weeks followed by pages covering a few years, and pages covering a few decades, centuries, millennia, until without realising it Baxter has manoeuvred his readers from a human to a chilly Evolutionary perspective.
None of the stories here are fillers, although some are more slight than others. The first two, set during and in the immediate aftermath of the Qax occupation of earth, aim for a sort of claustrophobia that isn't really what the more usually eon- and galaxy-spanning Baxter does best. "All in a Blaze" is a ten page and five-finger exercise in which not much happens except that an inhabitant of the Kuiper-object colony Port Sol discovers she is an immortal. But the second group of five tales (grouped here into a section called "The War with the Ghosts") ranges far more widely and effectively. Despite being alien silver globes with radically different perspectives on life than humanity, Baxter manages to make them comprehensible and even to generate sympathy. His human warriors seem simultaneously vulnerable (to the vacuum and radiations of outer space) and extraordinarily tough, managing hair's-breadth escapes from the breach in "On the Orion Line" and "The Ghost Pit," and staging the daring military raid and assassination of the sinister Black Ghost in "Ghost Wars."
The third section, "Assimilation," covers mankind's conquest of the galaxy, and includes the marvellous story "Lakes of Light" (which was originally another Crowther commission, this time from his 2005 anthology Constellations). A star has been sheathed in a thin but impermeable substance; this is rotating at such a speed that the centrifugal force cancels out just enough of the sun's enormous gravity to permit people to live on the surface. Holes in the sheath provide the titular lakes, from which the inhabitants harvest their energy and (via a network of giant mirrors) their light. It's a splendid concept, with all sorts of narrative possibilities, and the one chosen for this story works very well; but it's absolutely typical of Baxter that he tosses it away in a single short story instead of building (as, mentioning no names, some other writers might have done) a fat trilogy of novels about it.
The fourth section, "Resplendent," includes three effectively gritty war stories, in which the logic of fighting a foe as incomprehensible and powerful as the Xeelee creates a combination of the highest of high-tech and the lowest of World-War-One trench-digging tactics. "The Chop Line" and the novella "Riding the Rock" both get under the skin of military lives that are nasty, brutish, and short without losing their humanity. The actual defeat of the Xeelee, or more precisely the capture of their galactic-centre fortress, is not covered in Resplendent (it was the main storyline of Exultant), and there is a pleasantly Wellsian or Stapledonian dying fall to the final Resplendent stories—particularly the very last tale "The Siege of Earth," which finds a new spin on that hoary old SF standby, the end of the world story.
It is enormously to Baxter's credit that he pulls so grand a single book out of these myriad ideas and various stories. Indeed, it can be argued that the tension between the individual story and the overarching narrative—the tension inherent in any fix-up—are here addressed full-on. They articulate, in fact, the central dynamic of the whole of the Destiny's Children sequence: the individual versus the hive in Coalescent, the single soldier versus the mass of the human army in Exultant, the human perspective versus the godlike overview in Transcendent. Each of these, in their way, externalises Baxter's own diverse impulses as a writer: on the one hand his fertility of diverse ideas and concepts, and on the other his desire to fit everything into a whole that makes sense of everything. His Xeelee sequence is now so rich a megatext, so compelling a recapitulation of his own fascinations and of Hard SF itself, that each new addition to its canon resonates splendidly. If you've a taste for the strong black coffee of sense-of-wonder, inventive, hard-ish space-operatic and sweeping writing, then this is the very best Italian aromatic blend that money can buy. Very strongly recommended.
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