Manifold: Space & Origin


Space (2000) and Origin (2001) are the second and third novels in Stephen Baxter’s “Manifold” series, following Time (1999). The trilogy is thematic rather than diachronic: the novels describe three futures in three very different universes, but featuring a small set of common protagonists, some similar situations and Baxter’s characteristic concerns.

Reviewer Nick Gevers compared the sequence to Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Three Californias” trilogy, but really the similarity stops with the “thematic trilogy” description. Robinson portrays his characters’ reactions to three different future scenarios (a nuclear war in The Wild Shore, capitalism run riot in The Gold Coast, and ecological utopia in Pacific Edge), but Baxter confronts his characters with three different revelations about the nature of the universe. In Baxter’s trilogy we’re a long way away from the alternate-future, point-of-difference scenario.

The most striking theme of the trilogy is a bitter and sustained criticism of NASA for abandoning manned exploration of space in the decades following the end of the Apollo programme. NASA is portrayed as having a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy, management rife with careerism, petty jealousy and infighting, an over-cautious attitude to risking human lives, and a lack of engineering commitment and ‘can-do’ attitude.

To a certain extent this can be explained as the in-character attitudes of the protagonist, Reid Malenfant. In each novel of the trilogy, Malenfant is a former NASA Shuttle pilot who bitterly resents being grounded and schemes to get back into space however he can. Allegedly the grounding is for medical reasons, but Malenfant is sure that it’s really for political reasons, and it’s clear to the reader that this is very plausible, since Malenfant (as his name suggests) is an asshole. A review from SFX magazine is quoted on the back cover: “Malenfant is one of sf’s more memorable characters.” This is a bit of a slur on the general level of characterization in science fiction, but Malenfant’s arrogance, petulance and general spoilt-child behaviour have certainly stuck in my mind.

Most of the time it’s the characters who express contempt for NASA, but sometimes this contempt spills over into the narrative voice. From Time:

NASA had long grown wary of frightening away its political backers by thinking too big, and was focused on doing sexy science with small, cheap unmanned probes, while sustaining the careers and empires associated with the giant bureaucracy which ran the manned space programme, with its ageing Shuttle fleet and a half-built and much-delayed Space Station.

And from Space:

Joe Bridges was the director of flight operations—in effect, in NASA’s Byzantine, smothering internal bureaucracy, in charge of astronaut selection for missions.

This kind of narrative editorializing appears to be a mouthpiece for Baxter’s own opinions, and the impression is reinforced by the events of the series. In each book Malenfant can only return to space by bypassing or subverting NASA’s bureaucracy, thus “proving” that the criticism is justified. In Time, NASA has shut down its rocket launches because of political pressure from environmental activists, but Malenfant (who has become a billionaire businessman) builds a rocket out of old Shuttle components in secret and of course it works first time. In Space, something unexplained has happened to NASA’s participation in manned spaceflight: “the International Space Station had finally been abandoned, incomplete. No American had flown into space since—save as the guest of the Japanese, or the Europeans, or the Chinese.” Malenfant travels as a guest of the Japanese.1 And in Origin the only way NASA can send a mission to the Red Moon is to grudgingly welcome Malenfant back, and throw out their bureaucracy and procedures. Baxter has expressed similar views in interviews, for example with Infinity Plus:

There are lots of historical turning points—decisions made, opportunities lost. And now NASA I’m afraid has become a sclerotic Big Organisation, locked into the Space Station project, which will generate lots of jobs but little else. It’s really a waste of money, a white elephant in orbit. In fact for that amount of money you might as well orbit white elephants, and study the effects of zero G on albino pachyderms. Space travel ought to be about travel, about going somewhere.

I am unsure to what extent Baxter’s criticism of NASA is fair. As I understand it, Baxter was one of the 13,000 applicants to the consortium Project Juno which put Helen Sharman on Mir in 1991, and later he researched the history of the agency for his “NASA trilogy” (of which I’ve only read Moonseed). So it’s likely that he knows his stuff. But the anvilicious way he hammers home his views makes him seem as bitter and petulant as Malenfant.

In Origin Baxter goes beyond criticizing NASA’s bureaucracy and politics and exhibits what appears to me to be a contempt for engineering too:

But after the first couple of months, when the first calamities had predictably hit the project and the schedule had begun to fall apart before it had properly started, NASA, under pressure from the White House, had turned to Paulis.

Paulis’ first public act, in front of the cameras, had been to gather an immense heap of NASA documentation before the launch pad. “This ain’t Canaveral, and this is not the Shuttle programme,” he’d told his bemused workers. “We can’t afford to get tied up in a NASA paper trail. I invest the responsibility for quality in you, each and every one of you. I trust you to do your jobs. All I ask is that you do it right.” And he set the documentation heap alight with a flame-thrower.2

There were some, raised all their careers in NASA’s necessarily safety-obsessed bureaucracy, who couldn’t hack it; Paulis had had a twenty per cent drop-out. But the rest had cheered him to the Pacific clouds.

This seems like wishful indulgence to me. How can you carry out a multi-billion-dollar programme without documentation? How can you ensure that tens of thousands of people are working towards the same end without a system of management? What are we supposed to think of the idea that NASA is obsessed with safety? The implication Baxter is making is that the trade-off of more astronaut deaths for a cheaper and quicker space programme would be an effective one. But even if you discount the callousness, how likely is that to be right? An unsafe mission is likely to become a failed mission: Apollo 1 never flew; and Apollo 13 never landed on the Moon. It’s especially unclear that the Shuttle programme would have benefitted from more failures. There’s more of this ‘wing-and-a-prayer’ attitude to engineering:

[T]hey endured hours in classrooms and in hastily mocked-up simulators going over every aspect of their unlikely craft’s systems, and the procedures they would have to follow at their mission’s major stages.

The major problem with that turned out to be the very volatility of the design. As teams of engineers struggled to cram in everything they thought they needed, key systems went through major redesigns daily—and all of it impacted in the crew’s interface with their craft. In the end Malenfant had grown tired of the simulation programmers’ labouring efforts. He had shut down the sims, had a dummy cabin mocked up from plywood, and had blown-up layouts of their instrument panels cut out of paper and pasted over the wood. It wasn’t too interactive, but it familiarized them with systems and procedures—and it was easy to upgrade each morning with bits of tape and sticky paper, as news of each redesign came through.

This is what they were supposedly training for using the cardboard mockups:

They began to work from panel to panel, throwing switches and checking dials, working through their post-insertion checklist, configuring the software that would run the craft’s life support systems. Necessary work without which they would not survive, even for an hour.

Perhaps the most eloquent expression of contempt for engineers is this meditation by Malenfant as he boards the rocket:

In the end, he thought, every mission reduces to this: human beings climbing into the mouth of a monster, to be hurled away from the Earth. And all of the technicians and managers and fundraisers and cheerleaders and paper-chasers in the world can do nothing but watch.

So much for Mission Control.

I described the NASA sections of the books as the “most striking theme” but the ostensible theme of the trilogy is actually the Fermi paradox—the contrast between the likely number of technological civilizations in the galaxy indicated by the Drake equation and similar plausibility arguments, and the failure so far of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Baxter in Infinity Plus again:

This series is really about the Fermi Paradox. If the aliens existed, they would be here. This has become one of my obsessions the more I’ve thought about it, drawing in all the other stuff such as cosmology. It really doesn’t make sense that life got started here—apparently spontaneously, and then spread as far as it could, producing us, who have already walked on another world and made enough noise to waken half the Galaxy (literally)—but nowhere else. But that seems to be the truth.

This is overselling the paradox. Obviously we haven’t “made enough noise to waken half the Galaxy,” at least not yet—our electromagnetic signals have yet to travel much more than 100 light years, and targeted messages much less. (Wikipedia: “The first message to reach its destination will be ‘A Message From Earth’, which should reach Gliese 581 in Libra in 2029.”) Baxter continues:

Manifold is about different possible resolutions of Fermi. In Time, we are indeed alone—maybe the strangest notion of all. And we figure out our destiny and responsibility, which is mainly not to blow ourselves up. In Space the aliens suddenly show up. But then the mystery is—why here? Why now? How come we didn’t see them before? It turns out the universe is a pretty lethal place, and we have to figure out, with our cousins, how to survive. And in Origin there is a more paranoid explanation…

Again, I think this is overselling things. Space is really the only one of the three books to actually present a solution to the paradox—in this case, the idea that gamma-ray bursts periodically sterilize the galaxy, combined with the idea that a significant proportion of civilizations pursue a pattern of exponential growth, consuming all resources in the systems they visit as their spheres of colonization expand at close to the speed of light (what Iain M. Banks calls a “hegemonizing swarm”). So here on Earth we see no evidence of alien life—until all of a sudden they arrive and dismantle the solar system. This is an idea tailor-made for Baxter’s blend of misanthropy and pessimism, and he delights in showing the battered human survivors fleeing from the destruction of Earth to a sequence of more and more perilous refuges in the solar system.

The contribution of supernovae and gamma-ray bursts to the Fermi paradox was also considered by astronomer Ray Norris in his paper “How old is ET?” (the publication date—2000, same year as Space—suggests that it’s unlikely that Baxter was influenced by Norris or vice versa). Norris concludes that “Conventional models imply that supernovae and gamma-ray bursters will extinguish life on planets [randomly, but on average] at intervals of about 200 million years. Since this has not happened on Earth, either these conventional models are wrong, or else [Earth has escaped sterilization only by luck and therefore] life on Earth is probably unique in the Galaxy.” This is, if anything, an even more pessimistic theory than Baxter’s.3

In Time and Origin, Baxter presents no solution to the paradox. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that the alleged thematic connection seems rather overhyped. Both novels describe a far-future civilization, alone in the universe, that changes the past so as to create other intelligent life forms. There’s no explanation of how come this civilization is alone: it just is.

In Time, changing the past required the small matter of the destruction of the universe. In Origin, the ‘Red Moon’ (an artefact disguised as a small planet) travels between universes, gathering up hominids from various versions of the Earth and delivering them to other versions. It’s a kind of paranoid conspiracy version of evolution: you may have thought that for allopatric speciation all you need is an ordinary geographic or environmental barrier such as a mountain range or a sea. But no, in Origin it seems that you need another planet: so the ancestors of Homo erectus were abducted by the Red Moon, taken to a savannah environment, left to evolve there for a bit, and then returned to the Earth. Meanwhile, the various species are kept on the Red Moon in a kind of living museum of Hominidae, with H. erectus living next to H. neanderthalis, Ardipithecus ramidus and Paranthropus robustus (I think these last two are the species Baxter intends—in the novel they are called ‘Elfs’ and ‘Nutcracker Men’ respectively, though it’s possible that Baxter intends these to be species that never lived on Earth).

I’ve discussed Baxter’s attitude to NASA, and the Fermi paradox, but this really gives a misleading picture of Origin. In this 450-page book, there’s about 50 pages of anti-NASA, can-do space travel at the beginning, and about 20 pages of revelation about the far-future evolutionary meddlers at the end (the meddlers themselves are absent, but they have left a sort of visitor attraction with attached cosmic slideshow). The remainder of the book covers events on the Red Moon, mostly the adventures of Reid Malenfant and his wife Emma among the hominids, but there’s a long narrative thread about Shadow, an ‘Elf’, which never intersects with the rest of the book.

And it’s all horrible. Humans are violent and unpleasant animals for sure, but not all the time, and I find it hard to believe that life for our hominid ancestors was as grim as portrayed here. Shadow’s story in particular is a calvary of pain, featuring rape, infanticide, murder, cannibalism, injury, disease, and madness. You can see that Baxter has based his ‘Elf’ behaviour on the worst aspects of the common chimpanzee, but I think we could have been shown this much more briefly.

This unbalances the book: we’re supposed, I think, to feel a sense of wonder at the revelations about the deep future and the multiple universes. But after the sickening events that fill much of the book, I was flat out of wonder.

One of the characters in Greg Egan’s story ‘Crystal Nights’ questions the morality of setting up evolutionary processes: “Evolution is about failure and death. Do you have any idea how many sentient creatures lived and died along the way to Homo sapiens? How much suffering was involved?” Baxter knows for sure how much, but there’s no sign of any reflection on the morality of the super-beings who set it all up. But that’s Baxter for you: if you’re looking for serene contemplation of disaster and suffering, he’s your man.

Update 2010-08-17: over on LiveJournal Francis prompted me to say whether there was anything positive to take away from this series.

It seems to me that if you already like Baxter then you know what you’re getting, and these three books are as good examples of his schtick as any. If you don’t… well…

I was pretty negative in my reviews, but I do think Baxter has some interesting qualities, one of which is his pessimism. A lot of science fiction is wildly optimistic about all sorts of things, from technological progress to the improvability of humankind and the goodness of characters. Baxter is the opposite. In a Baxter novel, the characters are all assholes, the human race is doomed, and everything is pretty much shit. This attitude can be moderately refreshing in relatively small doses (that is, smaller than Origin). The main thing he’s optimistic about is the likelihood of building a successful space program by throwing away the manuals and bodging it (that is, he thinks it’s greater than zero).

I guess the other thing I ought to add is that this discussion gives a fair picture that perhaps ought to be balanced against mine:

The book was Manifold: Space, by Stephen Baxter. I was twelve at the time, and the book took about a month of my life, as I went over some sections several times, to let them sink in. Then I was done. And I was stunned. The vision of the book was maddening. Absolute, cosmic extinctions triggered by events that seemed as unlikely as the were inevitable. Suffice it to say that it got me thinking.

I’m an old and cynical reader of science fiction: I’ve read plenty of this kind of stuff and it no longer makes me go wow! to the same extent as it did when I was twelve. But if your mind is still waiting to be blown then Baxter delivers.

  1.  It seemed rather unlikely to me at first that the Japanese space agency would consent to name one of its spaceships Commodore Perry. But the existence of USS Tecumseh suggests that it may not be as unlikely as I imagine.

  2.  There is a real episode in the history of aerospace which this scene recalls, and that’s the cancellation of the British TSR-2 strike aircraft. The documentation for this plane was allegedly destroyed in a bonfire in the BAC car park. Of course, the purpose of this fire was to ensure that the TSR-2 project could not possibly be revived.

  3.  Norris’ and Baxter’s hypotheses are no longer plausible explanations for the Fermi paradox: the consensus is now that most of the energy in gamma-ray bursts goes into two narrow directional jets along the axis of rotation, and does not create large sterilized regions.