Hard science fiction authors are often criticized for writing prosaic prose and an inability to create believable, complex characters. Sci-fi legends like [a:Isaac Asimov|16667|Isaac Asimov|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1341965730p2/16667.jpg] and [a:Arthur C. Clarke|7779|Arthur C. Clarke|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1357191481p2/7779.jpg] did not escape such criticism yet their works remain immensely popular to this day and never go out of print. This begs the question of whether we really need
high literary value in hard sf. I think this style of writing is quite suitable to convey the type of story being told. The type where the story and concepts are bigger than the individual characters. What I expect from hard sf and space operas are wild ideas and epic plots on an intergalactic scale. Never mind the lyrical prose and passages of poetry I will look for those in the next book I read (or the one after that). As long as I am not limited to reading this kind of fiction to the exclusion of everything else I am fine with the more workmanlike writing style.
Which (finally) brings me to Stephen Baxter. You would have to be crazy to claim that Mr. Baxter is a literary writer, you could make the claim about a few sf authors like [a:Ursula K. Le Guin|874602|Ursula K. Le Guin|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1244291425p2/874602.jpg], [a:Jack Vance|5376|Jack Vance|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1207604643p2/5376.jpg] or [a:Gene Wolfe|23069|Gene Wolfe|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1207670073p2/23069.jpg] but if you are looking for a sci-fi / lit-fic combo Stephen Baxter is not your man. What he can offer the reader is the escapism and flight of imagination we often crave, backed up by a solid foundation in known physics to render the story much more believable than simple handwavium.
At this point a synopsis seems appropriate and I did write one but it collided with a cosmic string and can only be found in a neighboring universe. I can tell you this, it feature the Sun's energy being drained away by some weird "photino birds" aliens, a group of characters' attempt to save it. We also get to see the end of our universe which is a very cool scene, and the entrance into another universe "next door" to ours. The process involves the eponymous Ring woven by the Xeelee from cosmic strings and some time travelling, for the sake of verisimilitude everything is explained by impenetrable super science. Now you know why I didn't want to summarize the plot.
Baxter’s writing style reminds me of [a:Arthur C. Clarke|7779|Arthur C. Clarke|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1357191481p2/7779.jpg] more than anyone else. To his credit I think Baxter made more of a stab at character development (with limited success) but Clarke’s science expositions are much more accessible, and more seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Having said that, while a lot of the science in Ring
is beyond my comprehension Baxter did well enough to narrate the story is such a way that at least the gist
of the plot can be inferred.
The characters in Ring tend to spend a lot of time explaining rather arcane science to each other. They talk about the Pauli Exclusion Principle, event horizons, maser convections etc. like I would talk about flavors of ice cream. Also, all the characters also seem to "growl" a lot when they are irritated. These characters are generally pancake-like in term of depth, yet Baxter did manage to create one sympathetic character called Lieserl who has one of the best backstories ever. Lieserl is an AI character who starts off as a human engineered to age very rapidly and just before the moment of death her consciousness is digitized, stored in some kind of media and dispatched into the Sun to investigate an anomaly. All this so they can create an AI with real human personality and empathy. Ingenious and immoral, reminds of me of works by [a:Greg Egan|32699|Greg Egan|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1375595103p2/32699.jpg] and [a:Ted Chiang|130698|Ted Chiang|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1208187207p2/130698.jpg] where the theme of our moral responsibility to the AI beings we create is explored in much greater depth.
I read Ring
as part of the [b:Xeelee|6575201|Xeelee|Stephen Baxter|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347336042s/6575201.jpg|6768426] omnibus which contains four volumes of the Xeelee Sequence, namely Raft, Timelike Infinity, Flux
, and Ring
. If you are in possession of this omnibus I recommend reading [b:Timelike Infinity|66795|Timelike Infinity|Stephen Baxter|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1346403688s/66795.jpg|64769] first then Ring
, the other two volumes are standalone stories set in the same universe. So far I have read Timelike Infinity
; I think Baxter told a tighter, more exciting story with “Timelike” but Ring
is still a worthwhile read, just don’t expect any poems and songs.