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Review © 2004 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover design
by David Stevenson.



Coalescent was a book that frustrated me terribly. Brilliant for most of its length, Stephen Baxter let it all get away from him in a lousy ending. Exultant is better in that it's a more consistent and confidently realized work, and yet it frustrated me at times for reasons all its own. In the final analysis I have to allow that it's a stronger book, but only just. While Baxter's Destiny's Children trilogy isn't lacking for ambition, the execution is where it often comes up wanting.

Where Coalescent focused on the distant past and the present day, Exultant catapults us 25,000 years into the future to give us — well — a space opera. We learn that in the millennia separating Coalescent from this novel, the Earth was occupied by invading aliens called the Qax; that they were eventually driven off; and that humanity has since explored a great deal of the Milky Way, at times playing the role of alien invaders ourselves. This is a lush history that could itself make for several exciting stories. But it serves as a tantalizing backdrop to Exultant, in which humanity has come face to face with its most implacable foe. The Xeelee are a race of unimaginably advanced aliens whose roots seem to go back almost to the Big Bang itself, and we have fought them to a stalemate at the galaxy's core.

For all that Baxter cloaks his novel in some of the most cutting edge theoretical science, it's interesting how his story follows much the same thematic ideologies of Golden Age pulp. To wit, that humanity's interactions with alien cultures must needs be unequivocally hostile. It may come across as reactionary xenophobia. But as we have seen all too often in our own history, most recently in our presidential elections, different factions of people driven by ideology will choose hostility towards one another over cooperation every time. It isn't much of a stretch to think we might all react in a similar way to creatures entirely unlike us. But it's a bleak outlook all the same.

The story comes up a bit short in the originality department when Baxter introduces us to the front line of fighters in this 3000 year old bloodbath, a group of youths whose entire lives are spent in military installations on asteroids near the core. Grown in tubes, and trained in the strident Druz Doctrines — which extol the collective good while repudiating the worth of the individual — that have guided humanity ever since the fall of the Qax, these young people know only a never ending war that will kill most of them before they hit twenty. Comparisons are invited between this premise and those of such books as Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars and, of course, Ender's Game, in which kids are conditioned to be the ultimate soldiers battling an unstoppable alien enemy. But Baxter takes the idea in different directions, and throws in the amusing conceit of having someone from the older generation be the catalyst for change.

When Pirius, a young navy pilot, brings back the first captive Xeelee ship, due to some tinkering with causality, he finds himself not a hero but a criminal. Here is where Baxter goes to town with some of the book's best ideas. The FTL travel that is by necessity employed in Baxter's future means that every spaceship is in essence a kind of time machine, since zooming around faster than light does wacky things to physics that you have to have advanced degrees to understand. So when Pirius returns to base with the captured fighter, he has actually come back to his recent past (so he's coexisting with a slightly younger version of himself now). This kind of thing actually goes on all the time in Baxter's future. The reason the war has been in a stalemate for so long is that each side uses these mild causality hiccups to hold each other at bay, by anticipating their respective next moves. But no one on our side has figured out how to do something the Xeelee cannot anticipate, until now. Pirius managed to capture the Xeelee vessel because a fellow pilot figured out a way (and died in the attempt). So it appears there could be a chance to defeat the Xeelee after all.

But according to the Druz Doctrines, such bold individualism is criminal. It seems almost jaw-droppingly unbelievable that Baxter could be asking us to swallow the notion of a far-future society in which someone might actually be punished for figuring out how to win a war. And yet here, Baxter is making the point that societies that adhere to intractable dogmas are doomed to stasis. The Coalition that governs humanity from Earth is your typical bastion of entrenched, institutionalized mediocrity. Thematically, it's a reductio ad absurdam of much that goes on in modern-day politics. When you look at the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, both between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the often utterly inept way the U.S. insists on prosecuting its "War on Terror," it's easy to see how quickly policies that guarantee failure can be endlessly recycled.

Pirius is rescued from the full brunt of his punishment by Commissary Nilis, a minor functionary from the Coalition who is a rare "think outside the box" kind of guy. While Pirius' older self, nicknamed Pirius Blue by Nilis, goes off to a penal colony to learn how to be cannon fodder, Nilis gets custody of Pirius Red, the younger one. Off they go — with another of Pirius' fellow soldiers, a girl who's been his bunkmate — back to Earth, to help (however unwittingly) Nilis in his lonely efforts to break through Doctrinal roadblocks and come up with a way to end this ages-old conflict once and for all.

Regrettably, this is where the book enters an occasionally draggy and contrived midsection. Nilis and Pirius Red go zipping back and forth throughout the solar system — first to Earth, then Saturn's moons, then waaay out to Pluto, then to Venus, then Mars, etc. — as casually as you or I might drive from store to store doing our holiday shopping. Now, I know that FTL travel is a plot device that's necessary if you want to make a galaxy spanning space opera work. Gotta get from place to place somehow, after all. But is it just me, or does the overuse of such a plot devise have the effect of stripping the vast and glorious backdrop of our universe of its sense of wonder, instead of enhancing it?

As Nilis and Pirius search for clues that could point them to a possible Xeelee-defeating technology, some author's convenience comes into play. For instance, there's one potentially very interesting minor character called Luru Parz, who is a 20,000 year old veteran of the Qax occupation. Luru was one of the reviled collaborators, whom the Qax granted immortality in exchange for her services. (Possible theological subtext is ignored by Baxter here.) But today, the Coalition, rather than eliminate her, keeps her around in secret should anything she knows prove useful; more bureaucratic self-interest at work, whatever the Doctrines may say.

Lots of possibilities here. But in the actual story, Luru really only plays one role: when it becomes necessary for Nilis and Pirius to figure out one thing in their quest and move to the next stage, Luru is there to give them what they need. When this function is served, she disappears from the story. Which is a damn shame. Though Baxter lets us into her head a little bit, considering the full potential of such a character, it's a pity she didn't do much more than serve the protagonists as a walking "Help" menu.

Exultant's final third picks up the pace, leading to an engrossing resolution that, while it might seem a little abrupt, doesn't send the book into a tailspin this time. There is also a heap of fascinating speculation on the way life could have originated with the dawn of the universe itself, which is the kind of thing serious hard SF junkies will enjoy sinking their teeth into. And fans of space battles will get a kick out of the idea of using black holes and pocket universes as weaponry.

While this book has no single character as compelling or as fully realized as Regina from Coalescent, you do eventually warm up to Pirius. Both versions, that is, though interestingly, Pirius Blue a little more. We see less of the older Pirius, since the bulk of the story involves Nilis and Pirius Red's efforts to outthink the Xeelee. But Pirius Blue's short chapters, depicting his harsh life as an infantry grunt, with friends pointlessly dying all around him, have a gut-felt humanity much of the rest of the book lacks. And without giving anything away, he really comes a cropper at the finale.

Exultant can be read without having read Coalescent. Indeed, one of the few overt links to the first book appears when Nilis and Pirius Red go to Mars and visit the one massive library storing over 25,000 years of human history, which is run by an interbred "hive" society identical to the Puissant Order founded by Regina. Overall, I would have to say that while this is not shaping up to be a great trilogy, Stephen Baxter certainly deserves props for stretching his imagination as far as he can to speculate on humanity's ultimate future. It's a bit disheartening to think that 25,000 years from now, we're likely to be the same shallow, shortsighted, and ideologically hidebound species we are today. But I'm still willing to give Baxter an A for effort, even if I would rather these books were making me feel more, you know, exultant.

Followed by Transcendent.