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I’m no fool but when it comes to science there’s definitely a component missing. I can handle the basics but when the likes of protons, quarks and anti-gravity get involved my tenuous grip on comprehension starts to erode.
Science fiction falls into various sub-genres, among them hard, space opera and mundane. Many of the best known writers in the field such as Asimov and Clarke fit neatly into the former category, often sacrificing story for development of ideas and science theory. This has never really appealed to me – my memories of reading Asimov’s Foundation are of two hundred pages of mathematical discussion which has been enough to stop me ever going back.
Baxter’s Manifold:Time definitely falls into the same category, but it has just enough action to keep the reader interested through the science discussions.
Reid Malenfant is a 51-year old entrepreneur with a NASA background who decides its his duty to kickstart man’s colonization of space by launching a private mining mission to an asteroid. The year is 2010, the setting a slightly altered reality which is more technologically advanced. We have flexible computer screens, self-fixing concrete and intelligent garbage cans, and everyone is drinking the wonderfully named Sh&t Cola. At the same time, the world is in the midst of an outbreak of super-intelligent children, called “Blues”.
Malanfant is the obsessive central character. He is flanked on one side by Cornelius Taine, a slightly wacko theorist who believes the human race is soon to be wiped out by something called the Carter Incident, and on the other by Emma Stoney, the manager of his company, Bootstrap, who also happens to be his ex-wife. Her role in particular seems superficial at first, but later it becomes clear that she is cleverly placed as a layman character, meaning Malenfant, Taine and their team of scientists are required to simplify their complex science theories in order that she, and at the same time, the reader, can understand.
After detecting supposed messages from the future, Malenfant launches his rocket, controlled by a squid with artificial intelligence, Sheena 5. Upon arrival, it turns out Sheena 5 was pregnant, and some of her babies are intelligent too. The squid rebel of sorts, at the same time stumbling across something extraordinary that might have a great bearing on mankind. Under extreme political pressure and against a background of world upheaval, Malenfant launches a second illegal rocket to go and sort them out, this time with himself as pilot.
Manifold:Time is a very well written book. The pacing is good, the text is broken up into short paragraphs for ease of reading, and while a lot of the science made absolutely no sense to me it is obvious Baxter knows his stuff and as he points out in an afterword most of the theories and principles included are based on real theories and studies. There were a couple of sections where the conversations just lost me, though, regardless of how many times I read them.
The characters are also very good. The book is split into four parts but there are numerous viewpoints split into little chapters, some in first person, some in third. Emma is the most common narrator, but there are also a lot of random viewpoints, from news reporters and politicians, as well as a few that seem to be letters or blogs, all of which makes it more interesting. In the form of the squid, Sheena 5, you also have a non-human viewpoint to add more perspective.
While I probably wouldn’t read it again, it was good enough that I would consider reading the other books in the series.