What do we risk by expanding recklessly into the multiverse? Stephen Baxter’s World Engines series is gripping but frustrating, says Sally Adee
19 August 2020
Why do we risk so much in the hope of colonising space?
REID MALENFANT wakes up from a cryogenic coma in the year 2469. It was 2019 when he crashed a space shuttle and entered medical deep freeze, just as Earth’s citizens were taking their first steps to colonise the solar system. The world he wakes in 450 years later is unrecognisable. We burned all our fossil fuels for the space race and the consequences are in full bloom: London, New York, Florida and many coastal areas are drowned, and the planet is tropical.
Those are just the cosmetic changes in World Engines: Destroyer, the first in Stephen Baxter’s series. The human project has ended – we retreated from the solar system, recognising our inability to thrive outside our biosphere. We retreated on Earth too, with a population fallen below 100 million, both as a result of centuries-long destruction and as a way to let nature heal.
As Malenfant digs deeper, though, he discovers another contributing factor. A solar system-rending cataclysm has been foreseen in about 1000 years, so Earth is in a period of managed decline. It isn’t a bad existence for the people. There is no pollution and no waste, with every car, cup and plate made to last generations. Universal basic income (UBI) means no one is poor. People still have children. But there is no drive to do more than exist in this Eden.
“In one universe, Richard Nixon created a Star Trek-like programme that had boots on Mars by 2005”
Yet the 25th century woke up Malenfant for a reason, of course. That reason takes him to the Martian moon Phobos, which has been displaying idiosyncracies that turn out to be a hatch to other universes. By the end of the first book, Malenfant has set out to discover who built the portal and what kind of entities play snooker with entire solar systems.
It is these questions that are addressed in the second book, World Engines: Creator, and their answers leave deeper questions about humanity’s relentless obsession with expansion. What do we risk by embarking recklessly into the solar system, the universe or even the multiverse? What is this impulse to colonise? Are the only choices eternal expansion or managed decline?
Many readers may have given up on the first book after some 200 pages because of Malenfant, a jerk ripped straight from the pages of 1960s sci-fi at its most toxically masculine. But the clue is in the name. Soldier on and it is clear that Baxter has written Malenfant to reflect our current condition as a species: selfish, greedy and full of toxic individualism.
As Malenfant begins to evolve, the books hit their stride, asking questions that telescope out into brain-exploding territory. Baxter has an encyclopedic knowledge of early space and military history that he remixes into delightful mash-ups. In one universe, instead of sinking in the Watergate scandal, US president Richard Nixon set up UBI, leading the world to follow suit – and to the creation of a Star Trek-like space programme that had boots on Mars by 2005.
In another, Winston Churchill is ousted by his opposition rival, Neville Chamberlain. This creates a British-led dominance of space in steampunk space behemoths, spreading diamond-cut accents and Victorian repression.
Other books have grappled with our place in the multiverse, but few have Baxter’s vision and ability to work at very different scales. World Engines: Creator isn’t always evenly paced, gets bogged down in science pedantry and can be exasperatingly opaque at times, but I am crossing my fingers for a third book.
Sally also recommends…
The Space Between Worlds
Micaiah Johnson’s stunning debut is impossible to put down. It nails the stakes of the multiverse and employs a beautiful character transformation arc.
The Number of the Beast
Robert A. Heinlein’s book is the first and best in this genre.
Nick Spencer’s comic world puts alternate versions of you up for sale. You choose the version you prefer that day, but there is always a price.
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