TIMELIKE INFINITY by Stephen Baxter

This is the next in the Xeelee Sequence, a sprawling series of hard science fiction space opera novels, novellas, and short stories  which spans billions of years of fictional history, centering on humanity’s future expansion into the universe, its cosmos-spanning war with an enigmatic and supremely powerful Type IV alien civilization called the Xeelee, and the Xeelee’s own war with dark matter entities called Photino Birds. The series features many other species and civilizations that play a prominent role, including the Squeem (a species of group mind aquatics), the Qax (beings whose biology is based on the complex interactions of convection cells), and the Silver Ghosts (symbiotic organisms encased in reflective shells). Several stories in the Sequence also deal with humans and posthumans living in extreme conditions, such as at the heart of a neutron star (Flux), in a separate universe with considerably stronger gravity (Raft), and within eusocial hive societies(Coalescent) .  The Xeelee Sequence is notable for its treatment of ideas stemming from the fringe of theoretical physics and futurology, such as exotic-matter physics, naked singularities, closed timelike curves, multiple universes, hyperadvanced computing and artificial intelligence, faster-than-light travel, and the upper echelons of the Kardashev scale.

Whew. This is a series with a lot of hard science matters, terms and ideas involved and tossed around like confetti. The first is Raft,  which you can read about hereRaft is not so riddled with quantum physics stuff, so is not too hard to understand.  But Timelike Infinity really tests your knowledge base of (and possibly even your tolerance for) all those quantum science ideas and terminology.  Although Raft was the first written and published,(1992)  and Timelike Infinity the second (1992),  Baxter recommends if you are now just starting the journey, that you read Timelike Infinity third, and Raft sixth in the series as it finally was constructed.   But he also says that he feels each book or story or novella should be a stand alone, and able to be read in any order, just as time is not linear.  Neat idea.

OK, to the story line.  This is not a sequence to RaftRaft is set in AD 104,858.  Timelike Infinity is set  in 5407 AD, so it actually predates the events in Raft.

The human race has been conquered by the Qax, a truly alien turbulent-liquid form of life.  OK; what does that mean?  It means that the turbulence of a liquid IS the lifeform.  They travel in what is essentially a giant aquarium in which the liquid is constantly in motion, and communicate through some kind of voice simulator.  They now rule over the few star systems of human space – adopting processes from human history to effectively oppress the resentful race. Humans have encountered a few other races, including the astoundingly advanced Xeelee, and been conquered once before – by the Squeem – but successfully recovered.

In this book, we are introduced to the ambassador for the humans to the Qax, and they watch as a wormhole begins to form, and then they see the firing of particles which preceeds a ship from …. the past?  The future?   Meanwhile, a group of young people have built a ship with a hyperspace drive secretly under the earth in what we today would call England.  Right under Stonehenge, as a matter of fact.  They manage to take off right under the nose of the Qax, assuming the Qax have a nose,  into the wormhole and travel back 1,500 years in time.  They call themselves the Friends.

The Friends believe that quantum wave-functions do not collapse like the Copenhagen interpretation holds, nor that each collapse actually buds off separate universes (like the quantum multiverse hypothesis holds) but rather that the universe is a participatory universe: the entire universe exists as a single massive quantum superposition, and that at the end of time (in the open universe of the Xeelee Sequence, time and space are unbounded, or more precisely, bounded only at the Cauchy boundaries of “Time-like infinity” and “Space-like infinity”), when intelligent life has collected all information (compare the Final anthropic principle and the Omega Point), and transformed into an “Ultimate Observer”, who will make the “Final observation”, the observation which collapses all the possible entangled wave-functions generated since the beginning of the universe.

This is a deep and complex book, involving a LOT of physics, philosophy and a complicated universe of various time periods.  There is a lot about black holes and singularities, a great deal of which tests my layman’s knowledge.  But I did enjoy this:

If you had a black hole in your kitchen you could just throw in the waste and see it compressed to invisibility in a fraction of a second, releasing floods of usable short-wavelength radiation.    Of course you’d have to find some way of keeping the singularity from eating the Moon.

Then there is the matter of exotic matter.  (See what I did there?)

Exotic matter is mass/energy that is compressed to singularity densities, almost, so that the superforce emerges to bind it together — and then allowed to cool and expand so that the superforced breaks open in a controllable manner, to give us the negative-energy characteristics we want.

How far could we take this?  I’d anticipate the manufacture of singularities themselves, on the scale of a few tons up to maybe, asteroid masses.

See what I mean?  It has a number of plot threads for different people/groups of people and different time periods.  It is a lot of fun to read, and it really exercises your brain trying to keep it all organized in your head.   I looked up timelike infinity, and it basically is a kind of measurement for singularities, because you know, your tapemeasure is just not going to cut it.

 

RAFT by Stephen Baxter

I have been on a sci fi binge, lately.  Just finished the Spin Trilogy, and now have embarked on what looks to be another fine series of hard science sci fi books called the Xeelee Sequence.  Raft is book #1 of this series.

A spaceship from Earth accidentally crossed through a hole in space-time to a universe where the force of gravity is one billion times as strong as the gravity we know. Somehow the crew survived, aided by the fact that they emerged into a cloud of gas surrounding a black hole, which provided a breathable atmosphere. Five hundred years later, their descendants still struggle for existence in the Nebula.

In the Nebula, are three human species locations.  One is the raft, a motley collection of edifices, topped by a control room, all built on the remains of the original space ship.  The folks there have some kind of machine that makes food, and there is a scientist class of people devoted to trying to understand the universe through physics and retro engineering stuff.    The second is the Belt.  This is a small collection of shacks in orbit around a dead sun, which they mine for iron and other materials.  The gravity within the core of this sun is so great that the miners sit in special chairs because they cannot stand in the gravity, and operate robot mining machines. They trade their mined stuff for food and goods from the Raft.

The third location is a hoot, but almost the most interesting of them all.  It is a tiny planetoid, with a strange surface of what looks like leather.  They are cannibals, who occasionally improve their diet by luring in a passing ‘whale’, a giant creature that floats around in the sky.  It turns out that the core of the planetoid is a space ship control center, upon which years, generations, of bones have been piled, actually creating the planetoid. In the ultra high gravity there, it was not actually possible to throw anything away into space, so the original stranded crew on or in their brokendown ship left the bodies to rot and the bones to pile up.  After they ran out of food, they found a way to process the meat from the dead bodies so the toxins, etc were destroyed and what was left was edible and drinkable. They used the skin to cover the surface.  After a while, as the bones added up, they had to live on top of them, and when our protagonist first met them , the Bonies, the pile was about 15 meters deep.  The small bonies population were all the descendants of that original crew.   Fascinating concept, the most original I have come across in my sci fi readings.

A spaceship from Earth accidentally crossed through a hole in space-time to a universe where the force of gravity is one billion times as strong as the gravity we know. Somehow the crew survived, aided by the fact that they emerged into a cloud of gas surrounding a black hole, which provided a breathable atmosphere. Five hundred years later, their descendants still struggle for existence.

Our protagonist, Rees, is a young man, tired of the unending brutal work in the mines, never enough food, and terrible living conditions.  His parents have died, and he is alone.  He sees the people who operate the delivery vehicles are healthy and hearty, and figures there has to be something better.  He stows away in one of these vessels, which are actually living trees on some kind of wheels, is found and taken to the Raft, where he shows a better than average grasp of physics, and is allowed to remain and start classes to become one of the scientists.

He sees, along with a couple of the old scientists, that their bubble inside the Nebula, and the Nebula itself, are dying, and they must try to get into a new Nebula, so they build a ship out of the control room on the Raft and take off with only about 40 people in it, instead of the planned 500 because those who were not on the list for escape were trying to destroy it altogether.  Can’t blame them, really.

It is a great concept, and it is not until you finish the book and think about it a bit do you come to the conclusion that even though we have to suspend disbelief in all sci fi,  the implausibility factor of people surviving for 500 years on scraps and dabs in an also implausible bubble of breathable air (how convenient!) might be a little higher than is comfortable.

So what.  I really liked it anyway, and am now reading the next in the series, Timelike Infinity, which one third into it, seems so far to have nothing to do with the events or characters from the Raft book.  But is pretty nifty in its own right.

Tried to find a picture of the flying tree vessels, but apparently nobody has a clue so no fan pics.  Sorry, guys.

VORTEX by Robert Charles Wilson

This is the third book of the Spin trilogy.   The first two are Spin, which you can read about here,  and Axis, which is here.

The third volume gives us a closer look at Turk Findley, whom we met back in Axis,  and we meet again the half Hypothetical/half human boy Isaac.  The chapters of the book alternate between two timelines: one approximately 40 years following the events of Spin and the other approximately 10,000 years following the events of Axis.

Turk Findley awakens ten thousand years after he and the gene-modified boy Isaac were drawn into the Hypotheticals’ temporal Arch on the planet Equatoria, at the climax of Axis. He finds himself on an artificial floating archipelago called Vox, populated by a fanatical collective who, just like Axis’s rogue scientist Avram Dvali, (from Axis) are obsessed with making direct contact with the Hypotheticals, whom they view as no less than gods. Like all fanatics, they simply take for granted that their gods want to meet them, too, and will eagerly deliver them the spiritual ascendance they crave. Ideological conformity is monitored by an implanted node in each Vox citizen linking their minds to the Coryphaeus, Vox’s governing Network. Other human societies in the Ring of Worlds connected by the Arches oppose Vox, and Turk’s arrival coincides with one of them dropping a small nuke on Vox Core, an event that proves only a brief if significant interruption.

The counter plotline has Turk’s story of his adventures on Vox somehow being channeled into the mind and the diaries of young drifter Orrin Mather. Orrin is brought into a psychiatric clinic in Houston by a cop named Bose, who, in the opinion of Dr. Sandra Cole, is taking a level of personal interest in the case unusual for an officer. Bose’s reasons become apparent as the two of them seek to unravel Orrin’s mystery. Has the boy, who’s barely literate and never demonstrated any particular creativity in his life, simply made up this far future saga?

Well, I thought it was an odd way to continue the story of Turk 10,000 years in the future. Seemed like a contrived vehicle and for me, did nothing to enhance the basic premise of the fanatical group seeking their god.  The Vox archipelago sails under the arch to the environs of the earth, to find the planet ravaged, ruined, and desolate.  I am not sure if we are meant to assume that the human species did itself in by using all it’s resources, or we are meant to simply contemplate the passage of time and understand that nothing is forever, except possibly the Hypotheticals.

Did the Vox population get to meet the Hypotheticals?  Well, yes, but not in the way they had expected.

Warnng…. Spoiler alert.  If you plan to read this trilogy, stop reading here.

 

^^^^^^

^^^^^^

^^^^^^

The Hypotheticals, who encased the earth in a bubble that slowed down time, encased Mars in a bubble, set up arches from world to world, are ……. a process, not a thing.  Not a being.  They … it … evolved from a research probe sent into space who knows how long ago, which was equipped with a program for self replicating, and grew from that.  Its goal is information gathering … that was the probe’s original mission,  and the whole thing got out of hand and grew into this monster  process whose goal was to gather all the info it could, and in fact created worlds etc. in order to find more information.

So the trilogy is ultimately about our search for god, or a deity, or a something greater than ourselves to believe in, and our vulnerability and capacity for self-deception.

There was generally a lot of disappointment in the book reading world with the second and third books of the trilogy, but for me, a person with perhaps lower standards than many, I enjoyed it immensely.

 

 

 

 

 

AXIS by Robert Charles Wilson

I’ve been feeling in the mood lately for some good hard science sci fi,  so thought I would get back to the Spin series.  I strongly recommend that you go to my review of the first book, Spin,  which you will find here,  because you will need it to understand Axis.

Axis takes place on the new planet introduced at the end of Spin, a world the Hypotheticals engineered to support human life and connected to Earth by way of the Arch that towers hundreds of miles over the Indian Ocean. Humans are colonizing this new world — and, predictably, fiercely exploiting its resources, chiefly large deposits of oil in the western deserts of the continent of Equatoria.

Remember those folks who colonized Mars back in Spin? The reversed engineered some Hypothetical pharmaceuticals and created a drug that would add 20 or 30 more years to one’s lifespan, while at the same time making the individual more compassionate and caring.  Bring it on,  we could use some of that ourselves.  It was all done around a kind of quasi-religious structure in order to control it.  The head guy brought it to Earth on his only visit between the planets, and the Earth government was quick to outlaw it, seeing  how it would surely instantly be explointed.  People who took the drug were call Fourths, for what was thought of as the fourth stage of life, and it was illegal and the Fourths kept their existence very secret and hidden.

Lise Adams is a young woman attempting to uncover the mystery of her father’s disappearance ten years earlier. Turk Findley is an ex-sailor and sometimes-drifter. They come together when showers of comet dust seed the planet with tiny remnant Hypothetical machines. Soon, this seemingly hospitable world becomes very alien, as the nature of time is once again twisted by entities unknown.

A quasi-religious group of “Fourths” from Earth, led by Dr. Avram Dvali, lives in the desert seeded by falling dust. They’ve created a child they call Isaac with a Martian upgrade (fatal to adults) that connects him with the Hypotheticals.   They are hoping he will be able to communicate with the Hypotheticals and gather some answers for them.  The Fourth-hunting “Department of Genomic Security” is searching for this group or for a visiting Martian Fourth who disapproves of Isaac’s creation.

I don’t know that this a good stand-alone or merely a bridge between Spin and the third of the trilogy, Vortex,  but you can read it and enjoy it without having first read Spin, but why would you?  The trilogy is an examination of our notions of religion, identity, our place in the universe, and what would appear to be our need for a deity.  If you prefer your sci fi to be space opera-y, and less intellectual, maybe this is not for you, although the storyline is compelling on its own without having to think too much.  But if you prefer, as I do, the kind of sci fi that does what sci fi does best — that is, look at the bigger picture, ask the big questions that probably have no answers, make you realize that we really ARE just a microscopic dot in this ever-expanding cosmos, then you will truly enjoy this trilogy.

NOT ALONE by Craig A. Falconer

I do love a good hard science sci fi book.  And this one was a doozy.

A young man, a believer in aliens since childhood,  is working in a bookstore cum coffee shop, when he is sent to deliver a book on his bicycle.  Near the large IDA building, which stands for  Intelligence Something Something, a masked man carrying a bag of folders and six gold bars, dashes out from between parked cars, running into our guy, knocking him over, scattering the folders.  He pulls a gun on our boy Dan, tells him not to touch the folders, grabs them up and disappears!   But Dan sees one that had slid under a car, picks it up and takes it home.

It contains information about mysterious objects that were discovered back in the time of the Second World War.   All evidence points to these objects being from outer space.  The German government decides the best thing to do was to hide them, and so all evidence was hidden all these years. Among the papers was a letter in German.  Dan decides to publish them on on social media, in the interest of Truth, all but the letter.  He then gets a book on translating German, and little by little, translates the letter which is a confession by a known scientist of his day, telling all about the discovery and how it was all put under wraps.

Most of the book is about the media, publicists, government coverups, and how governments use all of this to smokescreen their own problems.  One of the first characters to appear is a young, brilliant  P.R. gal who pushes her way into Dan’s life to help him take charge of the narrative.  I couldn’t help but see her in my mind’s eye as KellyAnne Conway, but her heavenly twin (you know, as opposed to the evil twin), lol.

It was a really really really long book …. 700 and some pages, and try as I might, I could not think of any part of it that could be shaved, cut down, or eliminated, without being a detriment to the book.

The final portion has first twists that you don’t see coming, then twists that you do, then twists that you don’t.

I really enjoyed it, but do confess that I ‘read’ about two thirds of it via audio while I was quilting.  My Kindle Fire has a text to speech feature and the speech has improved so much over the robotic voice of the early Kindles.

Great book.

 

HAL SPACEJOCK: JUST DESSERTS by Simon Haynes

hal-space-jockI like my sci fi sciency and with lots of robots.  I mean, really,  I want robots in my life, not just the kind that assemble car parts and deliver packages.  I like the kind of robots that wait on you, clean your house, and are good at clever repartee.  Kind of like Jeeves with replaceable parts.

In this third in its series, Hal Spacejock, free lance space freighter pilot extraordinaire is running out of options and money.  The only jobs available on  Planet Cathua are shady, illegal — not that that’s a bad thing, mind you — but ones pretty likely to land him in hot water, but now that the local loan shark is after him, using for their muscle a huge unpleasant robot with a penchant for destruction, he is forced to take an iffy job from the biggest robot builder on the planet.  That job would be delivering a sealed shipment to a distant yuk-a-toid planet where there is an operation that refurbs parts and reships them.  Along for the ride is an elderly robot, a bit rusty around the seams, but who (which?) still has all his brain parts functioning very well. 

Unfortunately, the place for repairs on that planet turns out to be a chop shop, and poor Clunk, the robot, is supposed to be chopped up, not given a class on modern technology.  Well, Hal can’t let this happen, especially when his return load is all refabbed parts, not the new ones the robot company claims to use.

So there is lots of thriller stuff, lots of funny conversation, and frankly my dears, Clunk is way smarter than his dented parts would suggest.

A totally fun read, a quasi thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously, so neither should we.  But be prepared, I am neck deep in a Peter Watts sci fi series, and that DOES take itself VERY seriously.

OK, dear ones, see you on the flip side.

THE ORION PROTOCOL by Gary Tigerman

orion-protocolSci fi, going where no man or woman has gone before.  I sure do love a good hard sci fi story.  They tend to be a combo of barely disguised current events, scarily accurate prognostications, and a whole lotta imagination.

This one is barely disguised current events, scarily accurate prognostications, and a whole lotta imagination.   I found it to be fascinating because it is about government coverups, (and Buddha knows we sure do have enough of those), aggression disguised as surveillance, and a clueless President of the US trying to become less clueless.

The basic premise is that the government is actually run by a cadre of shadow figures, and has been for decades, which nobody knows about, with Congress thinking they are pulling the strings, and each successive President thinking he is in charge.

1958: The Eisenhower-commissioned Brookings Report recommends that any future discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence be kept secret from the public.

1968: Congress grants NASA the power to indefinitely”quarantine” anyone exposed to alien life or artifacts.

That stuff is true;  did you know that?

1993: Just 48 hours from the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Observer probe inexplicably disappears and is declared “lost.”

That is not true, it is part of the fiction so don’t get all hyped up over it.

A high profile science journalist is sent anonymously a packet of photos of non-natural artifacts on Mars.  I want to say man-made, but who knows.  Is ‘alien-made’ a phrase?   The journalist takes it to a computer whizz who confirms the photos are real and not tampered with, and of the location they purport to be.  You know — stuff like that face and the pyramid we see on posts from IDontMakeThisStuffUp.Com.  I personally am keeping my fingers crossed that those artifacts are true, and not just Light and Shadows.   I so want there to be aliens.

Two NASA astronauts, one retired from NASA and teaching, and one still in the program, get involved.  You know why?  Because back when they were moon walking, they saw stuff.  Stuff the government hushed up.  But it is all now coming back to bite them in the butt.

Great storyline. I am not telling you any more of the plot because if you don’t read sci fi, you don’t care, and if you do read sci fi, I don’t want to ruin it for you.  Interesting twists, some thriller aspects, heart pounding finish.  OK, maybe not heart pounding.  Very little in fiction actually makes my heart pound.  The sound of the dinner bell?  Now that makes my heart pound.

martian_face_viking_rotatedpyramid-on-mars