Monday, October 23, 2017

The Contingencies of Histories: Ultima by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter is one of my favorite practitioners of so-called "hard science fiction" (a sub-genre generally longer on scientific speculation and Big Ideas than things like characterization and plot).  Hard SF is not everyone's cup of tea, but Baxter brews some of the best hard SF tea there is.  With Ultima, I particularly enjoyed thinking about the contingency of history in addition to Baxter's usual Arthur C. Clarke-style cosmic scale business.

I liked the previous volume in this duology, Proxima, which you might say is part of the trend of "Interstellar Voyaging 101" (see my post on the topic).

While Ultima is definitely a sequel to Proxima, it goes in a really different direction, which is not too surprising given the discovery of the mysterious Hatches at the end of Proxima.  It turns out that the Hatches are not just wormholes in space, but also between dimensions/universes.

Minor spoilers ahead...

This gives Baxter a chance to have fun with space Romans, and later on, space Incas!  The Romans come from a universe in which the Western Roman Empire survived until the 23rd century, where it vies for control of our solar system and others with China and a coalition of Celtic Britain and Norse Scandinavia.  In another universe, a volcano weakened Eurasian powers, leaving the Inca Empire to inherit the Earth, the solar system, and more.

As if this isn't fun enough, some AIs discover that a mysterious force seems to be messing with humanity in all of these universes for its own possibly nefarious ends.  This is where Baxter's Clarke-style Big Ideas come in.

End of minor spoilers.

One of my criticisms of the book is that it was hard to keep track of the characters, some of whom are children or grandchildren (maybe great-grandchildren?) of characters from the previous book.  Characterization isn't Baxter's strong suit, which makes it extra hard to keep track of who's who and what universe they're from.  With a couple exceptions, most of the characters are so bland it's hard to distinguish them, serving as they do primarily as vehicles for the plot and ideas.  Since the ideas are so cool, I'm fine with that, but if you're not used to Baxter or hard SF in general, that might be a hard pill for some readers to swallow.

The Philosophy Report

Aside from some deeper elements of the plot that really only come together at the end (which I will leave spoiler-free), some of the most interesting philosophical content surrounds the contingency of history.  Could human history of the last few thousand years have gone really differently than it did?  How do contingent events of climate and disease shape history?  Do science, technology, and ethics proceed in a linear fashion from one stage to the next, as a lot of science fiction supposes?  (See especially Star Trek, where the historical trajectory of Western Europe sets the standard for all civilizations in the galaxy in the form of Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development).  Could you imagine societies with spaceflight, but without sophisticated computers, even opting for low tech interstellar travel?  Or a society that eliminates hunger but not slavery?  A society that colonizes this and other solar systems but with a deeply traditional view of its past and acceptance of social hierarchies including empires and royalty?

What Baxter does, in other words, is to shake up the whole notion of naïve, necessary progress.  While history should be understood causally, it shouln't be understood teleologically.  One event causes the next, but history is not following any particular plan to any particular destination.  There is no end of history in the sense of a goal or telos, although existence might, in fact, end.

I don't find this particularly troubling.  If anything, the idea that history is a steady march irrespective of our actions ought to be troubling, and besides, has little evidence in its favor (this is why I've never warmed to Hegelian/Marxist views of history).  What the contingency of history ought to do, however, is to remind us of the preciousness of the good we have accomplished as well as how much more there is to be done, while acknowledging that there may be other ways to shape the future.  There's nothing necessary about the way we have been, nor the way we have to be in the future.  It's up to us, at least partially.

One of the most liberating effects of science fiction is how it limbers up our minds to imagine more than the past and present as we know them.  Baxter's historical what-if's are definitely a lot of fun, which is reason enough to read Ultima, but its deeper work comes in opening up new ways to think of ourselves, our histories, and our futures.

Rating: 85/100

See also my Goodreads review.

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