by Stephen Baxter
Ring is a rare creature indeed: This is Good Old Fashioned Super Science of the Arcot, Wade and Morey school, and it is also well written and — this is really impressive to me — completely consistent with what we currently know about the universe. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Unfortunately, Ring is a British hardback and it is unlikely to be out in the US for at least another year. I picked it up at Conadian (the 1994 Worldcon) and it doesn’t have a prayer of getting on the Hugo ballot. Nonetheless, I recommend it and I intend to nominate it.
Nearly Baxter’s entire corpus takes place in a single consistent future history which I’ll call the Xeelee Universe. The Xeelee are a race of transcendent aliens who — so far, at least — stay offstage. Their mysterious workings are central to many stories, but they don’t appear in person, so to speak. The Xeelee appear to be fighting a giant, losing battle against some unknown foe.
The gist of this universe’s future history is that Mankind eventually developed interstellar travel using an advanced drive that is nonetheless slower-than-light. We discovered that the Galaxy is full of other races, many more advanced than us, plus the Xeelee who go about their frequently-incomprehensible projects without taking notice of lesser races. In due course Humanity is conquered and throws off the conquerors, is conquered again, throws off the second conquerors, decides to do some conquering of its own, ultimately rises to challenge the Xeelee themselves for mastery of the universe and is beaten into a pulp.
The stories cover the entire history.
Baxter’s first published book in the US is Raft which was followed by Timelike Infinity. This pair showed the dreaded Great First Novel syndrome where a new writer bursts on the scene with a first novel of considerable promise and then follows it up with something quite mediocre. (Lots of people do this, some never quite manage to write a book as good as their first: James P. Hogan comes to mind here.)
Fortunately, Baxter seems to have escaped this trap with Ring.
The story of Ring follows two trails which ultimately unite. The Great Northern is a relativistic, slower-than-light spacecraft sent on a 5 million year circular voyage (time dilated to about 1000 years) carrying one end of a wormhole. When it arrives back in the Solar System, the wormhole will function as a time machine allowing humanity access to the world of 5,000,000 AD in which it is known that the Xeelee’s war will have reached its culmination.
The second thread concerns a woman whose mind has been downloaded into an AI and who has been sent to explore the interior of the Sun to learn why is neutrino flux is anomalously low. She is virtually immortal and after the civilization which gave her her mission dies, she explores the Sun on her own and discovers why the Sun is dying and eventually falls into a million-year dozing sleep.
Five million years from now, the Great Northern returns to a devastated Solar System and finds only the woman/AI in the dying Sun left alive.
And then things get complicated.
Ring filled my sensawonder quota for several months. I’m busy trying to get the rest of Baxter’s books and have started another, Flux, a story about humans who live in the mantle of a neutron star.
Baxter is a writer worth following.