Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, April 29, 2013

1997: Vacuum Diagrams (Baxter, Stephen)

Poor variety and characterization results in ennui (3/5)

My first exposure to Stephen Baxter was when I read Ring (1994) in 2007. Being new to science fiction, initially I may have been over-awed by the plethora of heavy science and fanciful hypothetical scenarios of Baxter. When I later thumbed my way through his Traces (1998), I found the twenty-two plots to have too much in common so that the successive stories were getting more and more boring. The Ancient Astronaut theory is a curiosity but the repetition of the theme was tiresome. Then there was Manifold: Time (1999) which also bored me. Thence, I put off reading Baxter for a long while.

A new collection, a new chance to revive my interest in Baxter. Sadly, the same ennui seemed to settle when similar themes kept cropping up in the short stories: life in the solar system, the artifacts of the Xeelee, and the four-dimensional human habitation. Baxter centers his writing around some scientific focal point, which is interesting at first but really doesn’t make a short story all that exciting, literary, or even good… most stories just feel aseptic, lifeless. The Xeelee always remain at a distance, the mysteries of the grand scheme always aloof yet shrouded, and humanity always once step behind the rest of the galactic civilizations.

Rear cover synopsis:
“This dazzling future history, winner of the 2000 Philip K. Dick Award, is the most ambitious and exciting since Asimov’s classic Foundation saga. It tells the story of Humankind—all the way to the end of the Universe itself.

Here, in luminous and vivid narratives spanning five million years, are the first Poole wormholes spanning the solar system; the conquest of Human planets by Squeem; GUTships that outrace light; the back-time invasion of the Qax; the mystery and legacy of the Xeelee, and their artifacts as large as small galaxies, where Ghost, Human, and Zeelee contemplate the awesome end of Time”


5664 AD: Prologue/Epilogue: Eve (1997) – 3/5 – Jack Raoul has been transformed from a bipedal human body to that of a reflective Ghost sphere. For humanity, Jack has concerns about the Ghosts’ use of quagma in their experiments in and on a lunar body. During his review of the experiment, he is visited by the vision of this deceased wife who then takes Jack through the future history of humanity. The cause for the vision is as concerning as the conclusion of the vision.

3674 AD: The Sun-People (1993) – 4/5 – On a distant Kuiper ice-object in a wide orbit of the sun there exists a species of liquid helium-blooded wheels. The object, coined Baked Alaska and deemed to be part of the expansion of wormholes in the system, was initially trampled on by the careless humans, but Michael Poole has been brought to the object to pass sentence on the world—will it be fostered by human intelligence or burnt to a cinder by human greed? 16 pages

3698 AD: The Logic Pool (1994) – 3/5 – The Neptunian moon of Nereid has long been home to a reclusive scientists, but recent colonization expansion has reached his precious moon. To warn him, a team investigates his home but finds him dead atop his experiment. The experiment in quantum non-linearity uses sentience, a branching logic-deducing which is occasionally culled, a death which Earth laws forbid. However, the implications, both profitable and destructive, are poised to expand. 20 pages

3825 AD: Gossamer (1995) – 3/5 – Exiting a wormhole unexpectedly, a crew of two crash land on the planet of Pluto with a months-long stash of rations and only themselves to occupy their boredom. While Cobh tinkers with the ship and wormhole mechanism, Lvov wanders the planet and discovers a nest of eggs under a lid crafted by some alien mind. The moon of Charon being frequently harvested for its volatiles, the region of Pluto may harbor life and endanger its economic benefits. 22 pages

3948 AD: Cilia-ofGold (1994) – 3/5 – Rather than import and mine the volatiles of an asteroid, the science team in orbit around Mercury decided to use the northern polar ice crater. However, during a deep drill sample, a corpse of a long cilia-covered organism is discovered. Also on Mercury, a dense resilient material of exotic nature is unearthed, a finding which points to an alien source to the billion-year life within the planet. 31 pages

3951 AD: Lieserl (1993) – 4/5 – Lieserl surfs convection fountains in the sun’s immediate surface. Though her form is non-corporeal, she was born as a human baby yet mothered by nanobots at the rate of one human year per day. Her accelerated growth to the age of nineteen has witnessed an intellectual blossoming at the cost of her childhood. Nostalgic in the surface of the sun, Lieserl recaps her short life, her mission, and her immortality. 22 pages

4874 AD: Pilot (1993) – 4/5 – With the Squeem occupying Earth and humanity being put to work on Squeem projects, one isolated planetoid between Jupiter and Saturn is home to a hundred people, among them a pilot named Anna Gage. To flee the system, they nudge their world into escape velocity, yet are followed by a Squeem missile. To evade death, the pocket of humanity ramps up their speed, only to view the missile revving up its own speed. Anna, the incorporeal pilot, eyes a black home solution. 19 pages

4922 AD: The Xeelee Flower (1987) – 2/5 – The Squeem use Jones as a high-risk scavenger and nothing more. His latest assignment is to comb the derelict houses of a Xeelee planet prior to its destruction by the impending nova. Jones discovers a blossom-like device which converts energy to mass—the Squeem are excited. However, the nova comes early and the Squeem whisk themselves off to safety, leaving Jones with his own wits on how to survive a nova with one fist-sized piece of technology. 13 pages

5024 AD: More Than Time or Distance (1988) – 4/5 – On a derelict moon in the aura of a passing supernova, where nothing should have stand let alone function, lays a simple structure housing two hoops; these hoops prove to be Xeelee artifacts, a finding which could be more lucrative than the GUTdrive. At the hands of a human speculator yet tracked and held at gunpoint by an alien foe, the human disables the apparatus and plays a three-day waiting game where speculation is only outmatched wits and conviction. 10 pages

5066 AD: The Switch (1990) – 2/5 – The law requires all trading vessels to carry a trained xenotechnologist aboard so that they are able to investigate any important artifact discoveries. The macho crew hound Mr. Ballantine, the ship’s xenotechnologist, until the man deduces the two-way switch of a Xeelee gravity nullifier, an efficient technology which trumps the human technological equivalent. With petty revenge on his mind, Ballantine tests the second function of the switch. 7 pages

5406 AD: Blue Shift (1989) – 5/5 – The last of a dying breed of star pilots, Jim Bolder mourns the loss of his ships and Earth’s fleet at the merciless hands of the Qax. There does, however, happen to be one job for the best pilot—aboard a functioning Xeelee nightfighter, courtesy of the Qax. After weeks of jumping millions of light-years, Jim discovers a massive rotating ring millions of light-years across; however, the news must be kept mum, something Jim loathes. 23 pages

5611 AD: The Quagma Datum (1989) – 3/5 – An isolated, curious beacon of lithium-7 sits fifteen billion light-years away, and human entrepreneur Wyman has developed the supersymmetry drive just for the trip; the trip, however, will be flown by scientist Dr. Luce and he’ll be in a race with the Silver Ghosts. The prize on the line is the understanding of proto-material for advancement in drive technology, but it seems as if Wyman is taking a personal stake in the matter rather than for the greater good for the greatest good of humankind. 21 pages

5653 AD: Planck Zero (1992) – 4/5 – The Ghosts are up to something with prohibited quagma material and Earth’s ambassador is eager to discover their secret, with the help of the Ghosts and corporeal transformation into Ghost-form. The Ghosts are probing the universal constants through the expanding quagma; more specifically, they are trying to limit Planck’s Constant to zero, thereby providing them with a perfectly reflective material and infinite computation, at a dangerous price. 18 pages

10,515 AD: The Gödel Flowers (1992) – 2/5 – An ancient iron construction surrounds a black dwarf star—in its very composition rests a staggering amount of alien data, more than all of humanity’s collective data combined. The fractal information layered by the ancient civilization is unresponsive, simply absorbing all information but un willing to submit to inquiry or connection. When human policeman Kapur tells the tale of Xeelee’s galactic domination, an odd response is evoked and their ride out nearly destroyed. 17 pages

21,124 AD: Vacuum Diagrams (1990) – 3/5 – A Xeelee construction, cube-shaped and six thousand miles to a side is impervious to all attempts at peering or breaking inside. Only Paul, a human being with no history and no memory, is able to penetrate the cube; he finds a plethora of Xeelee artifacts and even embryonic Xeelee, yet there is also a presence of anti-Xeelee, who cradle Paul in his waveform and show Paul the Xeelee’s anti-chronological legacy, which he shares. 19 pages

104,858 AD: Stowaway (1991) – 2/5 – Mining a star kernel for thirty thousand shifts of your life isn’t the greatest feat for any man, especially a man whose eyes have been opened to the collapsing universe around him. Anxious to chase the mystery and better his life, Rees the miner hitches a ride on a spoked wheel of a tree to find freedom on the Raft, only his initial presence and value matter very little to the tree pilot. 15 pages

171,257 AD: The Tyranny of Heaven (1990) – 3/5 – The Exaltation of the Integrality has a massive fleet of arks in hyperspace heading towards Bolder’s Ring, the source of cosmic destruction by the Xeelee. The Integrality preaches peace and aims to convert lost human colonies to its cause. Rodi and Thet encounter a colony on the misplaced moon of Earth and one additional line to a poem, which had been scattered through all colonies… and spells bloodlust and doom for the fleet. 24 pages

193,474 AD: Hero (1995) – 4/5 – In the depths of the blue electron gas above the Quantum Sea rests an arboreal human outpost. The exotic landscape isn’t without danger, as Thea finds out when a Ray sets its eyes upon her as prey. Her clan’s myth of the Hero comes true when he strikes the Ray with deadly result, but his reward for the village’s safety irks Thea, who steals the Hero’s suit made of Corestuff. The freedom and strength she finds in the pilfered suit also leads to another of the world’s perils. 17 pages

Circa 4,000,000 AD: Secret History (1991) – 3/5 – Paul, the Xeelee experiment, reviews the Xeelee’s cyclic rise and fall and continuity in a universe where dark matter outnumbers normal matter, where the Photino Birds decay the stability of the stars thus wreaking Baryonic civilizations. Where once the humans ignorantly fought the advancements of the Xeelee, they later realized that the Xeelee were trying to save them and every Baryonic civilization from premature destruction. 14 pages

4,101,214 AD: Shell (1987) – 3/5 – Allel stares in awe at the inverted bowl of the Shell which surrounds their world. Ignorant of the past and the structure in which her species lives, her mother, fed up with her idleness, takes her to the city where humankind’s history is pictorially displayed. Her conviction of being able to reach the surface of the inhabited Shell inspires her mother to assist in creating a balloon to touch its face. 16 pages

4,101,266 AD: The Eighth Room (1989) – 3/5 – Their world grows colder with the dying sun streaking the sky. Teal is unconsciously driven to save the orange sun, the cooling body of the human’s world which used to be yellow, according to the wise yet unheeded words of the mummy-cows. Teal and his grandmother Allel understand the importance of the mummy-cow’s words through song, so sending Teal on a quest to find the eighth door—a mystery in a mysterious hovering cube of extra dimensions. 27 pages

4,101,284 AD: The Baryonic Lords (1991) – 3/5 – In the contorted higher-dimensional habitat of the humans, the growing cold of the seasons is killing off the population. Erwal is inspired by the memory of her strong-willed grandmother, Allel, to reach the Eight Room and save the tribe from the cold and the coming death. Little did she know , Erwal would also be saving all of humanity from the quantum-state Qax and the menacing photino birds—with Paul’s help. 72 pages


There’s nothing else in Baxter’s bibliography which interests me: no novels nor collections. I haven’t given up on very many authors as yet, but Baxter is now among the few. Ho-hum.


  1. Just stopping by to say that I'm clinically fixated on your wonderful blog and that I've already expanded my 'to read' list by about 100 titles, thanks to you! (let me know if you ever get your hands on those Grant "Parric/Alpha" manuscripts...I'm reading Legion currently and, while deeply flawed, I am enjoying it!)


  2. AND I love the fact that you pack the stones to throw your chest out and proclaim to the world "I Don't Like Dune." Takes a bold s/f fan to lay that out there!! :D

  3. Haha, I wanted to keep it brief and factual. I also dislike Foundation. Gasp! I'm glad you find my personal dalliances helpful. Thanks for stopping by!