Bewildering Stories

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The Reading Room

by Thomas R.

Cosmic fiction

Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter
The Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

One of science fiction's unique abilities is to tell stories that span great distances in time or space. Most fiction only concerns a place that appears to be only a speck in the Universe, and a time frame that is little more than a flicker. That does not make those kinds of stories trivial, but it does give SF the advantage of dealing with the true scope of space-time.

I will began with the more contemporary work and than move backward. Manifold:Time qualifies as it deals with truly unimaginable scopes of time and space. At times this can be truly breathtaking. It also managed to be several stories at once, each written in an almost completely different style. You'd think this would not work, and in fact you would be right. Although some of the "books" within this book succeed as a whole I found it a spectacular failure which has worsened with memory.

First there is what I am going to call "The Heinlein" book. This is not an accurate description but it will serve for now. The reader can replace "Heinlein" with whatever Campbell age author sounds more appropriate from the coming description. This part is about the adventures of an American businessman trying to get into space despite "the government." His headstrong determination and faith in humanity going to the stars leads to him going to space and making fabulous discoveries.

For many reasons this is the weakest "book" within the book. For one I think he had been trying to go for complex and ended up muddled. At times he seemed to be trying to make a commentary on the kind of SF I just described, but he seemed too fond of it to commit to that. He also took it too seriously to make a gentle satire of the material. These things might be okay except he also seemed too skeptical to sincerely write that kind of story or even have fun with it. Perhaps more significant there is an almost undefinable, yet strong, sense of "wrongness" to it. Baxter is not good with characterization, which is fine as I do not read him for that. However in this case there are other problems. It is almost like he halfway understood American culture and than filled in the rest with pulp stereotypes and wild guesses. I am sure American authors often do even worse writing the British, but in a strange way a more inaccurate portrayal of America may have been an improvement over the strange hybrid he created. That plus other problems makes me unsure why he even tried to write this kind of story and use these characters as framers for the series.

The second I will discuss is the squid story. This is one of those where I am not going to compare it to another writers' style. This story seemed to be well loved and parts of it appeared independently in magazines. Read it in that form if you can. Though I kind of liked it, the book renders it meaningless in many ways and it likely worked better as an independent story.

Than there is the story that kind of mixes Clarke and certain kinds of British horror. This involved a group of genius kids. Early on they were shown not as prodigies, but some kind of evolutionary leap ala "Childhood's End" At first their mistreatment kind of leads to sympathy, but toward the end they became truly terrifying. Nevertheless as a whole this story had been so over the top that it also ended as something of a failure.

Than there is the story that blew me away. This is what I will call the Baxter story because it has what I actually like about him. Though it might be a bit like Stapledon and Clarke, ultimately it managed to have a feel all his own. This story showed the fate of the humanity and Universe through a googol years or so. In truth it is largely just a glorified science article, but what a science article! One of the most enthralling cosmological pieces I have ever read. Further putting it in fiction did add something to it. It is almost a shame such a spectacular piece had to be in such an awful book.

The last thing I will mention is actually the worst part of the book, but since it is kind of minor it did not rise to being "the worst book within the book" That being a subplot concerning a probability based apocalypse. This made absolutely no sense to me, and had not been given enough justification to make sense. Indeed I found it actively annoying and hoped it would be dropped at some point. Instead it seemed to become important the reader believe in it toward the end, which badly damaged the book for me. Later I learned a credible real life mathematician proposed the idea it was based on, but that does not change my opinion.

Now on to Stapledon. I had heard of him for years but had never read him. After hearing stories of how difficult he was to read I considered keeping him unread. I am glad I did not go with that feeling. Though I can not say I just loved "The Star Maker" it had been worth reading. On the whole I even found it easier to read than I had expected.

Essentially the book is about the evolution of life and its relationship to God. "The Star Maker" of the title is just a high brow name for God or some similar concept. At the end the character even communes with God, after a fashion. However Stapledon's version of God is very much divorced from any conventional religion so did not earn him many admirers there, while the book retains his solid hostility to any afterlife notions.

Though I will return to the theological elements which are the core concern of the book first I will discuss the more science fictional aspect. One intriguing aspect is that humanity is completely absent for most of the book. This happened because they had died in his previous; "Last And First Man". Yet by becoming part of a group mind one human managed to see the evolution of intelligence on a cosmic scale.

That involved a wide variety of strange creatures. From living trees to the discovery the stars are alive. Some of this I found preposterous and at times just a bit too cute. However the main being he emphasized worked fairly well.

It had been a symbiotic merger of oceanic and land based life forms. They ended up rather sympathetic and wise. They also formed vast artificial worlds and structures around stars. He even imagined them having something as close to genetic engineering as someone from the thirties could suggest. He gave them the most attention of any race in the book.

Another interesting element to this galactic society had been the philosophy these beings developed. He gave them what can only be called extreme pacifism. They never defended themselves and if need be died rather than commit violence. He seemed to realize this had some problems, but generally stayed firm that the crueler species could be defeated non-violently. From a modern perspective this seemed sweet, if more than a little naive.

Indeed throughout, the book had a kind of cuteness and sweetness I had not expected. Certainly not from reading "Last And First Man". The narrator talked of missing his wife, tended toward being kind of dreamy, and had high ideals. He also had great hopes of the day his group mind would be capable of communicating with God, which lead to a rather rude disappointment.

Essentially he had the vision or communion or "experience" with God, who showed him something like disdain. In Stapledon God is an artist seeking an ultimate creation, and our Universe is definitely not it. The Star Maker loved the narrator's Universe as much an author would love a first draft. Yet the narrator seemed more appalled by the realization that God would someday create a Universe to love, a love described in almost sensual/romantic terms. This realization shocked the narrator back into the past he began at, but did not exactly suggest that "It had all been a dream"

As a whole the book had several problems and in many ways may seem quaint to modern readers. However it had a certain historic value and actually had even been kind of good. As a whole it is certainly the better of the two discussed, but it had no individual part as good as the other's best part. Further although I do not subscribe to the theological views expressed, they had been interesting and in context worth thinking on. The book should more rightly be seen as philosophy, as the author wished, but likely did have influence on much later SF. Also by reading it I realize what the "Stapledonian" reference on book jackets mean and why it is almost always a misnomer.

So in conclusion I hope you enjoyed this review of British Cosmological SF. _________________________

Copyright © 2002 by Thomas R.