Baxter – Manifold Time

Giant+Squid3One’s personal viewpoint, constrained as it is by embodiment in time and location, is necessarily only one way of seeing things. Fortunately, we are capable of abstraction and generalization, so we can imagine viewpoints other than our own, and even, with enough imagination, a viewpoint that is nobody’s in particular, in other words, a “view from nowhere.”

In his 1986 book, philosopher Thomas Nagel said that “the view from nowhere” is both underrated and overrated. Those who dismiss it as ungrounded and therefore meaningless lack imagination and remain trapped inside their own skulls.

However the other extreme is to take an imagined omniscient, god’s-eye view and reason from that point. But we are human beings and we do not have a god’s-eye view of anything. To imagine that we do is akin to imagining flying pigs. You can do it, but nothing follows.

That is the fundamental error of Baxter’s basic premise in Manifold Time. If you imagine the arrow of time extending backward to the Big Bang and forward to an indefinite future, you can ask, “Why am I alive at this particular moment on the timeline?”  That’s a possibly useful question, and because nobody lives outside of time, only a view from nowhere allows you to ask it.

But Baxter goes much farther. If you can imagine the evolution of homo sapiens from the chimps, forward to the distant future, then surely you can imagine those humans who exist in the far future, and you can imagine that they might want to contact us here in the present and warn us of a forthcoming disaster. So the question becomes, how do you design a radio receiver that can capture messages from the future?

It’s a lot of fun, as is the design of the “Feynman radio” that accomplishes the trick, but any serious reader will realize the story has drifted into goofball-land. Imagining humans in the distant future does not imply anything.

We can imagine life on other planets because there is evidence and reasoning to support the speculation, such as the hardiness of bacteria, the simplicity of early life-forms, knowledge of conditions needed to support life, and the statistical probability of habitable planets. That is a far cry from imagining flying pigs or signals from future humans, for which there is no evidentiary or valid inferential basis.

So it’s fiction, you say. Give an author a break. Okay, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a good story, even when the foundation of the story is utter nonsense. But this book takes itself seriously, as if it were an exercise in hard sci-fi, which it isn’t. It’s the equivalent of swords and dragons.

I do give the author credit for creativity. Sending exploratory and colonizing missions to nearby asteroids – for mining, what else? — is a well-worn trope but having the vehicle piloted by a highly trained, super-intelligent squid is a wonderful and almost-plausible idea. (Cephalopods are the only animals outside of mammalia that have a cerebral cortex). I loved the sections narrated by the squid. Extremely creative stuff.  If the book could have kept up that level of character-interest, it would have been a total winner.

Alas, it doesn’t. The squid quickly takes a background role while the humans strut and pontificate on the stage, in particular, the main character, Malenfant (which is French for “Bad Boy” – get it?). He spouts science and declares facts and plans and damns the torpedoes, and listens to the counsel of a Rasputin who convinces him that only he can save the future of homo sapiens from the catastrophe revealed by the Feynman Radio.

That solution is for humans to colonize the stars with his special (hand-waving) atomic rockets. But wait! The squid are already out there propagating (Malenfent did not know the first squid was pregnant when she left). So is it going to be a space opera with epic battles between squid and humans? That might have been good. But, no.

Instead the story goes on with more twists and turns than a plate of fusilli, and at some point the reader can’t remember what the point of any of it is. Worse than lack of a coherent plotline, the characters are flat and all dialog is expositional. Characters simply recite questions and answers to each other. Relationships are perfunctory and unmotivated (especially between Bad Boy and his Main Squeeze, who he treats abominably). There is just nothing going on and no reason to keep reading unless you care about the endless stream of manufactured mini-dramas (will his funding be cut off???)

Except the squid, Sheena 5, the first one launched. That character is an original and has a very strong voice and is magnetically compelling. It proves that Baxter knows how to write, if only he were not so obsessed with wormholes, time folds, gravity distortions, speculative cosmology and all manner of woo-woo borderline science displayed with the same exhibitionism as Malenfant shows. What a lost opportunity. We wanted the  squid book, Baxter, as any early reader would have told you. The rest of it is five-hundred pages of pointless nonsense.

Baxter, Stephen (2000). Manifold Time. New York: Random House/Del Rey. (474 pp).


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