Exultant: Destiny's Children Book Two
(Gollancz, 490 pages; hardback, £18.99, ISBN 0-575-07428-0; trade
paperback, £12.99; published 23 September 2004.)
A positively genocidal humanity is embroiled in a 20,000-year-old galactic
conflict that, every century, costs the lives of more
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
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
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 a 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's 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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