by Stephen Baxter
HarperCollins, 2001, 455 pp, £16.99, October 2001
Origin forms the apparent end of a trilogy which began with Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space. (The latter two were just called Time and Space in the UK, so this book will probably be called Manifold: Origin in the US.)
As I noted in my reviews of the other two books, they are strange books. Origin is, if anything, stranger.
The main character in all three books is Reid Malenfant, however it is not the same Reid Malenfant – in two of the books he’s a NASA astronaut, while in the third he’s some sort of high-tech guru. Likewise, there is a cast of characters who also appear – in substantially different, but related roles – in all three books, almost as if they are parallel universes. Origin makes that possibility likely.
If there’s an overall plot behind all three books it’s based on the recent notions of very deep time. If you assume that our existing knowledge of Physics is correct (a big if!) you can map out the very long-term future of the universe.
Briefly, we’re in the Stellar Era now, a period lasting from about 108 years after the Big Bang to about 1012 years (we’re right in the logarithmic middle of that period now at 1010 years.) At the end of the Stellar period, there will be nothing left but black dwarfs, loose planets, neutron stars, black holes, and dilute interstellar gas. Galaxies will still exist – though much more widely separated than now, due to the expansion of the universe – and occasional collisions will produce one supernova in the entire universe every million years or so. This era will last a very long time – until perhaps 1030 years after the Big Bang and at the end of it the galaxies will be gone, having evaporated as gravitational interactions amongst the dark stars throw nearly all of them out into intergalactic space and let the rest be absorbed into each galaxy’s central black hole.
Note that during this time the universe will have continued to expand so that loose stars will be billions of light-years apart.
During the next 1060 years or so the only thing that happens is that the dark stars slowly disappear due to proton decay. Proton decay is a very slow process and generates about 400 watts of power in a dead star the size of our sun. This doesn’t heat it much, but it does (eventually, if you have enough time) radiate the star’s mass away leaving nothing.
By 1090 years after the Big Bang, nothing is left but the giant Black Holes which are the remnants of the galaxies, and they will slowly evaporate by means of Hawking radiation until at 10110 years all that is left are naked singularities (which we don’t understand at all) and electron-positron pairs slowly orbiting around each other at distances of many billions of light years.
It is possible to imagine life persisting right through until 10110 years, though its nature would necessarily change radically as matter evaporates. Whatever its form, it would slow down as the universe ages and to a good approximation its speed would be inverse to the universe’s age so that – subjectively – the enormous length of time (far, far longer than the current age of the universe) between, say, 1098 years and 1099 years after the Big Bang would seem about as long as between a billion years ABB and ten billion years ABB. (Baxter’s excellent short story, “The Gravity Mine” is set in that far, far future.)
The problem (in a Stapledonian sense, only!) is that when you work this out, the universe may well go on forever getting colder and colder and diluter and diluter, but there is only a finite amount of subjective time available.
Baxter imagines that humans did survive and our unimaginably distant descendents, distressed with the finitude of time, eventually reached back and triggered changes which resulted in a universe with an infinite number of parallel branches, yielding an infinite amount of subjective time.
In some fashion which I’m not sure I followed, Space and Time showed the firsts steps in that process, while Origin seems to be the culmination in which the universe is now actually infinite.
In Origin, Malenfant is a washed-up astronaut doing speaking tours in Africa when a mysterious red Moon appears in place of our usual Moon and a bright blue circle appears in the sky and drops hordes of Pithecanthropus onto Africa – and sweeps up his wife.
Malenfant plays the publicity game and manages to parlay this into being one of two astronauts to be launched to the new Red Moon – a Mars-sized body which is marginally inhabitable – in search of his wife.
When he gets there, he discovers that the Red Moon is home to numerous hominid species, including variations of modern man, and versions of every older species we know of. Some of them appear to have evolved beyond what they reached on Earth before they disappeared.
Malenfant and his companion do some traveling around and get a pretty good tour of the place, meeting many strange kinds of hominid. In the mean time, we’re also following Malenfant’s wife who is having her own adventures.
(This section was far too long, in my opinion. In particular the extended segments using Shadow, a hominid woman, were nearly pointless. I’m also bothered by the extreme behavioral differences among the hominids – I don’t believe that they’d be that fixed or that determined.)
The Red Moon is jumping between alternate universes and picking up and dropping off hominids in each – evidently it has been doing this for a very long time and visits our own universe every 30,000 years or so.
(There is some hint that our own Earth is the actual birthplace of humanity and all of the other hominids – the one hominid race more advanced than ourselves has already concluded that it is not native to it’s apparent home planet Earth – it can’t find the fossil record and it can’t find any closely related species.)
Baxter does foul up his consistency in a couple places. To start with, it is terribly improbable that the first really advanced race to be picked up by the Red Moon would have been picked up immediately after the visit to our Earth. Secondly, the Red Moon seems to make return visits, but the advanced hominids have a million years of recorded history and have never seen the Red Moon before. Minor details.
My biggest gripe about this whole sequence (Space, Time, Origin) is how contrived it all seems – the basic idea is great, but the implementation is clunky.
Worth reading if you liked the first two.