Manifold: Time

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Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter (Voyager, 2000).

Reid Malenfant is a maverick billionaire who is determined to launch a manned space mission to mine the asteroid belt. The bureaucrats of NASA and crazy anti-space environmentalists try to thwart him with their weapons of red tape and government regulation, but Malenfant is too mavericky for them, and launches his hastily thrown-together rocket in the nick of time—with Malenfant aboard, of course—leaving the bureaucrats standing helpless by the launch pad.

The standard set of space advocacy soundbites pile up as Malenfant pitches his plans to investors—“If we succeed [in colonizing space], we will live forever. The alternative is extinction.”—“[A solar] system’s resources … are useless for any other purpose, and are therefore economically free to us.”—“A metallic-type near-Earth object would be worth, conservatively, trillions in today’s market.”—“If you reach a C-type, a carbonaceous chondrite, full of water and organic compounds, you can … throw bags of water and food and plastics back to Earth orbit, where they would be worth billions in saved launch costs.”—“Because of NASA’s safety controls and qual[ity] standards it takes years and millions of dollars to prepare your payload for flight.”

It’s hard for me to tell to what extent Baxter means this to be taken seriously. The maverick space entrepreneur who could easily conquer space if it weren’t for those pesky pen-pushers at NASA is such a cliché that surely no-one can now play it straight? The fallacies of space advocacy are sufficiently shopworn that an intelligent writer of science fiction with a background in science or engineering should have no trouble seeing through them. Later in the book all Malenfant’s plans come to ruin, so maybe the idea is to undermine these clichés by showing their failure? On the other hand, the early sections of the book are told with such a poker face that there’s no indication that the author has any kind of ironic or satirical attitude to this material. Indeed, Baxter says in an interview that he never writes in ironic mode:

Basically I try not to employ irony, allusive or recursive or otherwise, just as I try to keep out of the forefront of my mind all the levels of metaphor that come with any piece of fiction. I try to get fully immersed in the fiction; I’m not interested in writing elaborate jokes. I’m just trying to tell as compelling and honest a story as I can, with the tools I have at my disposal.

The annoyance factor, already at dangerous levels, goes off the scale when one of the characters introduces the Doomsday argument. I’ll summarize the argument here:

  1. Suppose that you have an a priori estimate for the distribution of the number of humans who will ever live.

  2. Suppose further that you are a random sample uniformly selected from all the humans who will ever live.

  3. Note that you are about the 60 billionth human to live.

  4. You can use (2) and (3), plus Bayes’ theorem, to refine your estimate of the distribution in (1). Plugging in plausible distributions for (1), we find that (as Wikipedia puts it) “it is unlikely that more than 1.2 trillion humans will ever live.

The argument as stated is logically correct: if all the assumptions were true then the conclusion would follow. But assumption (2) is wrong, so the conclusion does not in fact follow. So the main rhetorical trick in presenting the argument is to obfuscate the role of assumption (2), either by skipping it or by making an analogy with a statistical situation in which the sample is genuinely random. Baxter neatly pulls off the latter bait-and-switch by making an analogy with picking balls from a box. Note the phrase I’ve emphasized in the first paragraph.

Cornelius reached under the table and produced a wooden box, sealed up. It had a single grooved outlet, with a wooden lever alongside. ‘In this box there are a number of balls. One of them has your name on it, Malenfant; the rest are blank. If you press the lever you will retrieve the balls one at a time, and you may inspect them. The retrieval will be truly random.

‘I won’t give you the opportunity to inspect the box, save to draw out the balls with the lever. But I promise you there are either ten balls in here—or a thousand. Now. Would you hazard which is the true number, ten or a thousand?’

‘Nope. Not without evidence.’

‘Very wise. Please, pull the lever.’

Malenfant drummed his fingers on the tabletop. Then he pressed the lever. A small black marble popped into the slot. Malenfant inspected it; it was blank. Emma could see there was easily room for a thousand such balls in the box, if need be.

Malenfant scowled and pressed the lever again.

His name was on the third ball he produced.

‘There are ten balls in the box,’ said Malenfant immediately. [page 45]

Why is this so annoying? It’s interesting to think this through, because I don’t normally object to science fiction that uses wrong ideas or incorrect science (nearly all of the genre, after all). But suspension of disbelief can’t be compelled, so there needs to be some concession to the fact that the science is wrong. For example, Greg Egan’s novel Quarantine uses the idea that human consciousness causes the collapse of quantum superposition. This was a genuine piece of speculative quantum physics—the idea was discussed by physicist Eugene Wigner in his 1961 essay “Remarks on the Mind-Body Question”—but I think it’s safe to say that no serious physicist believes it now, and certainly Egan doesn’t. So the novel has some work to do in getting the reader to the point where suspension of disbelief is possible, and Egan accomplishes this by describing a series of observations and experiments whose results can only plausibly be explained in terms of the effect of human consciousness on quantum superposition. So when the novel asks us to consider the “consciousness causes collapse” theory, there’s a narrative payoff: never mind that it’s nonsense in the real world, in the world of Quarantine it provides an explanation for a series of mysterious events. So the reader is primed to suspend disbelief and rewarded for that suspension.

At least, it worked for me. There are clearly personal differences in the kind of nonsense that readers are willing to entertain. For example, Nick Barnes stopped believing in Egan’s novel Schild’s Ladder at the introduction of the idea that the phase transition to the fictional “novo-vacuum” of the novel should propagate at half the speed of light. This didn’t bother me; having swallowed the novel’s idea of the laws of physics being explained by transformations of an underlying graph, the idea that some effect could propagate along the graph at a rational fraction of the speed of light wasn’t much of a gnat to strain at. But for another reader it was. So Egan could have improved his novel for at least one reader by taking more care to justify this piece of fictional physics.

But back to Time. The use of the Doomsday argument annoyed me because Baxter makes no attempt to justify the argument within the fictional world of the novel. The argument could be made plausible within a science-fictional context by showing us a series of anthropic experiments that ratify the randomness assumption, or by hand-waving some science-fictional rationale for it. But there’s nothing like that; the argument is just dropped in there with no clue as to its status within the fiction. There’s no narrative payoff from accepting it. So are we meant to interpret it as a truth of the invented world? Or as evidence of the craziness or untrustworthiness of the character who makes the argument and the credulity of the (many) characters in the novel who are convinced by it? Or could Baxter even believe it himself? Reviewer Dave Langford was so troubled by the last of these theories that he contacted Baxter to check! “I was relieved to learn (by personal enquiry) that Baxter himself doesn’t take the argument seriously”.

However, the space entrepreneurship and the Doomsday argument plots soon drop out of the novel as the space travellers find a magic portal which gives them a package tour of a far future in which human civilization survives alone in a decaying universe. This is potentially a powerful vision, of intelligent life struggling to gather enough energy to power its existence while everything runs down to the ultimate heat death:

‘… the smallest, longest-lived dwarf [star]s can last for maybe a hundred billion years, a lot longer than the sun. But the interstellar medium is a finite resource. Sooner or later there will be no more new stars. And eventually, one by one, all the stars will die. All that will remain will be stellar remnants, neutron stars and black holes and white dwarfs, slowly cooling.’ He smiled, analytic. ‘Think of it. All that rich, complex dust and gas we saw before, locked up in the cooling corpses of dead stars … And then, this.’ Cornelius pointed. ‘The wreck of the Galaxy. Some of the dying stars have evaporated out of the Galaxy. The rest are collapsing into the great black holes—those blisters you see in the disc … Those stars are small and cold. Designed for longevity. Their worlds must be huddled close—probably gravitationally locked, keeping one face in the light, one in the dark…’ [pages 197–199]

It could be a powerful vision—but it’s presented by Cornelius, the same character who tried to fool us with the Doomsday argument. So it loses much of its force by being narrated by such an untrustworthy (and annoying) character.

In parallel with the deep futurology, Time develops a plot about superintelligent children who begin to be born to ordinary parents. These children inspire fear and hatred in the general population, and they are taken away from their families and concentrated in orphanages. In what looks like a reference to the stolen generations of native Australians, the viewpoint children are taken to an institution in Australia where they are brutalized and starved. This strand of the story is an indictment of our xenophobia and fear of strangers, right? Except that it turns out that these children are planning the destruction of the universe. So is the idea that it was right to fear and distrust them? What’s going on here?

There’s a clear pattern in all these problems: Baxter completely lacks control over his material in this novel. He has potentially powerful themes and ideas, but handles them so inconsistently that they lose all their power. The novel starts as if it’s a story of ambitious space entrepreneurship—but it comes to nothing because the universe ends. Is this Baxter satirically undermining a science fictional cliché? Or is it just that he likes to write about space entrepreneurs? He puts the powerful central vision of the future of humanity in the mouth of a character whose credibility he has destroyed via the Doomsday nonsense. Is this meant to undermine the vision, to show how little faith we can put in this kind of futurology? The brutal treatment of the cuckoo children appears at first to be an impassioned criticism of xenophobia, but then the effect is completely undermined as the children turn out in fact to be a threat to the survival of the human race. Baxter’s depressing view of humanity as wasteful, fearful and violent is one for which you can find plenty of evidence in the real world. But the result is an incoherent book: you can’t have half your plot driven by “oh no! humanity must be saved from extinction!” and the other half driven by “humanity is too vile and stupid to be worth saving”.

Baxter needs to think a bit harder about what kind of aesthetic effect he’s trying to achieve, and then to deploy his considerable resources of invention and speculation so that they all face in the same direction.