Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ultima - Stephen Baxter

Ultima is the sequel to Stephen Baxter’s excellent and imaginative Proxima. It starts right after the close of Proxima. And where Proxima dealt with space, and society, and interstellar colonisation, Ultima throws itself full force into a discussion of divergent universes.

In terms of setting, this means that both the characters and the reader jump around a bit. Both they and we find ourselves in a universe where the Roman Empire never fell. Baxter manages to do quite a lot with this. He delves into the social structures of a world divided into three monolithic powers, exploring with gusto the idea of a civilisation which never developed electricity, but managed to brute-force a means of space travel. The Romans, as Baxter paints them, are efficient, loyal, brave - and casually brutal. Their world is one in which environmental catastrophe is remarked upon but largely ignored. Where the reality of global conflict is never more than a few ill-chosen words away. It’s a more fragile world than any of those we saw in Proxima, but it manages to feel more alive than all of them – Baxter’s world of Rome is one with a raw vitality, mixed with an appetite for danger.
Baxter also explores several other alternate-history thought experiments, and they’re certainly interesting – I won’t get into details here to avoid spoilers. With that in mind: Baxter has an eye for vivid cultural depictions, mixed in with imaginative spectacle. I wasn’t always convinced by some of the directions of these alternate timelines – the aforementioned Roman rockets, for example, seem to run on clockwork and hope, and there’s a remarkable lack of military innovation. That said, given an infinite number of universes, it’s going to happen somewhere (which is one of the points of the text), so I won’t complain too much – it was simply a little jarring.

Many of the characters in Ultima will be familiar from Proxima. That said, Baxter isn’t afraid to remove some of those, or to add in new characters from the new reality. The most interesting thing here is the approach to time – there are swathes of it which are simply elided, the characters aging between narrative spaces. It’s an interesting approach, and one that works here. Parts of these chronological gaps are gradually revealed in the text, and give the reader insight into unfamiliar dynamics which are occurring on familiar characters. The changes in these characters are gradual, and entirely believable – and there’s a lot of opportunity available to delve deeper into each of them, and what makes them tick; it feels like in amongst the towers of reality-altering scope, the characters are our lodestones – and that they also change as the world around them does, makes them all the more real. 

There’s a few new characters as well. They don’t get as much space to develop as our more familiar travelling companions, but there’s enough. After a while, the feel of new and old falls away, and you’re left with people – flawed, often unpleasant people, but entirely believable, feeling humans, rather than narrative ciphers. There’s some wonderfully emotive moments strung through the text, and by the close, the characters have a degree of emotional heft – their various conclusions having almost physical value.

The plot…well, it spans universes. There’s a lot going on. There’s a relentless quality to Baxter’s prose, something which kept me turning pages – a desire to see how it all turned out. How it would end. In between that end and the explosive beginning, there’s quite a lot going on. Battles. Family squabbles. Personal trauma, and hope. Efforts to delve into the mysteries of the inscrutable hatches, and their builders. A journey which continues, one step at a time, a quest for both understanding and a sense of closure for the characters. The text carries so much within it, and it won’t let go of the reader. Instead it asks questions, and even answers some of them. In the end, Baxter’s universe is a grand one, and the unanswered questions are perhaps the best ones.

If you’ve not read Proxima, it’s probably best to do that first, to provide the necessary context. If you’ve already read Proxima, this is certainly worth picking up, to see how the duology wraps up. It’s also a well-crafted sci-fi novel, which takes big ideas and goes with them in unexpected directions – with interesting characters in a clever setting. 

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