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|Hard science fiction, where the plausibility of the science
is as important as the quality of the fiction, is fiendishly tough to write.
Audiences have become more sophisticated, aided by hundreds of popular
science titles from Stephen Hawking's look at progress toward a grand
unification theory in A Brief History of Time to Gerard Milburn's
study of quantum physics in The Feynman Processor, and demand that
authors create speculative futures that are, at the very least, plausible.
Stephen Baxter, a trained mathematician and aerospace engineer, is quite qualified to craft hard science fiction where the science is both forward-looking and completely accurate. And his fiction is as good as his science.
In Manifold: Time, Baxter starts in the summer of 2010, with the Earth in increasingly desperate environmental and social straits. The United States has banned space launches in the face of severe birth defects caused by rocket fuel, but Reid Malenfant, who is everything his name implies, is determined to right the Earth's ship by mining nearby asteroids despite the American bureaucracy's attempts to block him. In the meantime, the state of California is closed to anyone of African, Latin, or Asian descent, and public fears of super-smart children, called "Blue" children because of the identifying badges they are made to wear, has forced the best young minds on the planet into camps.
The story moves into high gear when Dr. Cornelius, a principal of Eschatology Inc., begins guiding Malenfant's actions. His company, whose name means "the study of the end of things", has determined that the world will end through some sort of catastrophe within the next two hundred years and that Malenfant's efforts, properly directed, could prevent that end. The race to find the solution brings Malenfant, Cornelius, Malenfant's ex-wife Emma Stoney (Malenfant's chief of operations), and the Blue children into the mix to prevent the end of the human race. The answer, as one would hope, is far more complex and satisfying than a simple program to save the world.
Baxter writes in first person, shifting from character to character to provide a variety of perspectives on the action, but Emma is the pivotal character, the one who comments on the action and provides insights into the other characters' motivations. Malenfant, Cornelius, and Representative Maura Della (a conditional supporter of Malenfant's efforts) are all driven by their agendas, while the children are portrayed as something more than human. That leaves Emma, who has unique insights into Malenfant's psyche as well as the resources to research the others, to carry the narrative burden. Baxter's handling of that central character makes the first two-thirds of Manifold: Time a joy to read and not a morass of exposition.
Beyond my praise for the body of the book, I also found the ending to be quite deep and satisfying. Any reader of science fiction, but especially those who appreciate an author's ability to mix hard science with a vivid story, should read Manifold: Time.
--Curtis D. Frye, Editor of Technology & Society Book Reviews