Book review of Exultant by Stephen Baxter


This review of Exultant (Destiny’s Children Book Two) by Stephen Baxter was written in 2004 for the website Infinity Plus.

Gollancz, 2004, £18.99, 490pp, ISBN 0-575-07428-0


ExultantA positively genocidal humanity is embroiled in a 20,000-year-old galactic conflict that, every century, costs the lives of more humans than have ever existed up until now. It’s a stalemate, with the implacable Xeelee occupying the galactic centre, and, having retreated thus far, budging no further.

We are outclassed on just about every level, except that of sheer bloody-mindedness and weight of numbers. Asteroids in their thousands, crammed full of child soldiers in their millions, are poured into the centre of the galaxy, barely keeping the Xeelee hemmed in by overwhelming them.

This is the world we find ourselves inhabiting in Exultant, book two of the Destiny’s Children trilogy. It could be worse, however: you could live there, as Pirius does. He occupies the relatively privileged position of pilot on Arches Base, one of the many asteroids, and is ‘..the product of a hundred generations grown in the birthing tanks…’ (page 4).

A heroic manoeuvre in the midst of a disastrous attack results in him being court-martialled for disobeying clearly suicidal orders along with his crew and an earlier self, because, the physical laws of our universe being what they are, Pirius’s manoeuvre has brought him back in time two years.

This interesting plot device (one which, I confess, I didn’t really manage to follow the hard physics of) quite effectively divides the narrative of Exultant in two so that we can now follow the older Pirius Blue and the younger, Pirius Red (red and blue relating to the colour shift seen in objects travelling to and away from us at high speeds on galactic scales). Pirius Red is still held partly responsible for Blue’s actions, since they are the same person, but not directly answerable for them since he did not (and now never will) commit them…

God, this is complicated. Let me get my grammar and my breath back a second.

Right – so Pirius Blue and his crew are exiled to a grim asteroid infantry base, there to be thrown (fairly literally) at the Xeelee when necessary. Pirius Red is taken from Arches Base, along with his then-girlfriend, Torec, by Nilis, a highly respected scientist and hence wielder of political power on the distant, quite alien, home-world of Earth. Nilis takes Pirus Red and Torec to Earth where they (and hence we) embark upon a grand tour of the future Earth and a much-changed solar system.

It takes time for Pirius and Torec to get used to the strange and mightily extravagant way of life on Earth. Nilis, however, has not bought them here merely as companions or circus curiosities; it seems the old man might have a plan to try and end the horrific war that has defined humanity’s existence for so tragically long. He still has to persuade those in charge on old conservative Earth, however. Unaffected by and seemingly uncaring of the cost to those billions such as Pirius and Torec, the ‘earthworms’ are sceptical not only that the war can be won but, unbelievably, that it should be won.

Much of Exultant is a good old-fashioned science fictional travelogue, detailing the wonders (and horrors) of the 220th century. In places it seems almost a homage to some Golden Age texts: Pirius is an outsider brought to an Earth that is in many ways more familiar to us than it is to him, and, under the narrative guise of ‘research’ he gets to see some of its more impressive sights; he is also the outsider who breaks both the rules (because he’s unaware of them) and thus the conservative deadlock.

This aspect of Exultant works well; Baxter uses his solid future history and even more solid knowledge of theoretical physics (if that’s not an oxymoron) to excellent spectacular effect. If you don’t come away from this book with a reinforced wonder at the awe-inspiring scope and possibilities of our universe then you haven’t been paying attention. However, it works rather less well in portraying the more social dimensions of the situation.

We have humanity involved in a problematical conflict not too dissimilar to World War One, except on a far, far, far greater scale. And almost all of that humanity is geared simply to continuing to fight the war, despite the fact that resources and brains – let alone individual human lives – are being wasted on a scale that is quite simply unimaginable. The opening passages of Exultant, set on just one of the bases around the galactic core, begin to conjure up the sheer grinding awfulness of the situation: the waste, the mess and the magnitude of it all.

But this is a fairly long book (nearly 500 pages) and this sense of the carnage is not sustainable over that length. The immense scale of the war against the Xeelee seems to fade once Baxter takes us away from the galactic core, and for me, this made the following lengthy ‘grand tour’ segments and then the (intensely rushed and simplistic) search for a ‘final solution’ seem rather tepid.

They aren’t particularly ‘tepid’ in reality: there are some interesting science and grand speculation about the future human solar system, but humanity itself is never quite adequately portrayed – having read Banks’, Egan’s and Sterling’s depictions of future humanities, Baxter’s largely unseen but apparently rather anodyne society fails to entirely engage. There wasn’t enough background to support the rest of the story. A Banks, Egan or Sterling human universe would appear to be fractal, with variations becoming apparent no matter how far or how minutely you observed it, and that wasn’t the case here.

Upon reflection, perhaps Exultant is specifically written to evoke a sense of lost variety, of how humanity’s neurotically fundamentalist drive to win the war has led to a galactic monoculture, a vanilla galaxy; but there are, I think, probably better ways this could have been accomplished.

Now, I know Baxter can tell a story as well as almost anyone in the genre (and outside it too), but taken as a whole Exultant feels a little as though he’s bitten off more than he can comfortably chew. Pirius Red’s quest for a solution to end the war feels as if it should be a much harder and longer one than it is to properly evoke the sense of destiny and of desperation inherent in such a quest. Whilst the surroundings may be majestic and wondrous, the quest itself is a little too neat, feels a little too rigged for success.

But to recant, for all that I’ve complained, this is by no means a bad book. My point is that it could have been a better one and might have been expected to be better coming from Stephen Baxter. There are some humbling passages on the evolution of the universe and of life within Exultant that would make Olaf Stapledon weep with joy. By contrast, the exhilarating final chapters must, I swear, have been written after watching the end of Star Wars (the original – part IV) again, when the Rebel Alliance attack the Death Star – there is that same sense of breathless pace and desperation about them.

Exultant is actually a very moral book – I mentioned World War One comparisons earlier – and without being expressly anti-war altogether (which, against such a foe as the Xeelee, would be a straightforward recipe for extinction), this is a book that cautions against the loss of our fundamental humanity in any ongoing struggle – whether that of war or simply for survival in an inhuman universe (and it’s worth noting that mindless ‘Hive’ societies, as previously seen in Coalescent, regularly crop up throughout this book as a ‘natural’ evolutionary answer to difficult survival problems; they are described as a flaw in our humanity, something that we have to be on our guard against). Our intelligence, culture and society, should not be taken for granted; none of them are guaranteed and, unique as they are, we have to hang onto them, for they are all too easily lost.

One wonders where Baxter possibly can and will take his Destiny’s Children next – whatever is he planning for the third book…?

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