Mark Sachs (ksleet) wrote,
Mark Sachs

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"Come on lads, over the top! One more big push and we'll have defeated the Xeelee!"

You won't mind if I talk a bit about science fiction author Stephen Baxter, would you? Good, good.

Baxter is the author of such books as Vacuum Diagrams, Titan, Ring, Raft, Voyage, Rhombus, Tetrahedron, Breadtangle, Oh Gee Yet Another Amazing Alien Artifact and I'll let you guess at what point I started making up titles. I used to be a relatively big fan of the guy, which is why I have a fair number of his books on my shelf. Somewhere around Timelike Infinity I got exasperated for reasons I couldn't really nail down, and gave up on him.

This is a while back. Recently, it's seemed like there's been a poverty of new hard SF authors (I'll gladly take suggestions!) and so I figured, well, heck, that Baxter guy was into theoretical physics and junk, I'll re-read some of his stuff. So I read most of the story collection Vacuum Diagrams and I started re-reading his novel Anti-Ice and then -- it clicked.

If you'll forgive my language, he's just making s**t up.

Anti-Ice is not a bad example to start with. The deal is that in 1850 or so, British explorers find a mine of "anti-ice" in the Antarctic. Anti-Ice is basically a kind of frozen antimatter; it's safe as long as it's kept at Antarctic temperatures, but if it warms up, pow! Now, I'm not complaining about this per se. One of definitions I've heard of hard SF -- half tongue-in-cheek, granted, but it's not such a bad definition all in all -- is that you're allowed one "gimme." Other than that, the rest of the world you build has to follow logically and according to the laws of physics. So the plucky Brits use their Anti-Ice to make land battleships and build a Dyna-Soar and a monorail and... when we got to the Crystal Cathedral built for a new Great Exhibition, I had to get out the penalty card.

Because Anti-Ice is a power source. That's all it is (except when you're using it to nuke Sevastopol and end the Crimean War early, of course.) A power source is helpful, sure, but there are engineering issues here. We could build a fifty-story glass cathedral today if we really wanted to, but only because we have the benefit of 150 years of architectural experience, computer simulations, better materials, better construction methods, and on and on. A power source, no matter how super-awesome, isn't going to make up for that absence; I suspect even Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be shaking his head at this plan. Then there's the monorail. It crisscrosses Britain on a track suspended a hundred feet in the air. Never mind the horrific expense of putting your light rail line five times higher than the one you see, say, here in Chicago; never mind minor issues of practicality, though I guess this is something they could theoretically have built; one has to ask, what's the point? Why build this "Light Rail" when the existing train network is a) already built, b) uses already existing rolling stock and supports the existing rail technology, c) in the event of accident (which happened all the time in Victorian Britain, an amazingly unsafe place by modern standards) will not fall a hundred feet onto the houses below? And while we're at it, why the hell did they move the capital from London to Manchester? What's the point? There is no point. Baxter is just making it up.

And as I thought along those lines, I realized that even the crazy super future particle physics alien action in Baxter's other novels is just as bad. Whenever a spaceship gets stranded somewhere or an alien race encounters an environmental crisis the immediate reaction is to somehow construct a miniature life form that can exist in the top millimeter of a neutron star and download your consciousness into it, or to re-engineer your entire race to be perfectly reflective spheres, or come up with a way to copy your species into vortices of chaotic probability, or.... and after about the twentieth or thirtieth miracle of super-science one gets brain-lock and starts asking awkward questions like, hey, I thought this was hard SF. How are people, or even aliens, accomplishing these things, and why don't these incredible capabilities affect their society until the moment of crisis? A humanity that can engineer neutron-star people so casually is unlikely to get into situations where that is even going to be an issue.

That's quibbling, though. More broadly, the author can only start throwing around so many unmoored references to neutralinos and quagma and Kerr metric interfaces before it becomes magic, not science fiction. He may know what he's talking about but he certainly doesn't give that impression. Oh, so now the Xeelee can travel back in time and pre-empt their own evolution? Well, sure, why not? And one of their spaceships is smart enough to analyze an entire universe with different laws of physics and figure out how to construct planets and stars for people to live on, then accomplish that feat using the Xeelee equivalent of hand weapons? Heck, why not put a ray that shoots rainbows and candy on the front too while we're at it?

Dang. I'm actually getting angry here.

Um, anyway. That's the problem: at the lightest touch of skepticism, the worlds he builds fall to bits. Because of that he can really make his readers hate him.

(And of course, there's Baxter's ham-handed characterization and his Idiot Plots and his grasp on cultural extrapolation and human nature that borders on the autistic... but I think this essay has already outstayed its welcome.)
Tags: nerd
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