July 2nd, 2002

The Tuesday Siesta Review: Manifold: Time

Stephen Baxter's Manifold series was the first recent hard SF to take a good long hard look at the Fermi paradox. By playing with different variants of the same lead character, one Reid Malenfant, in different universes, Baxter is able to explore different answers to the question "Are we alone?".

Time is the first of this series, one that explores the deep future, and the ultimate destiny of life in the universe. With a statistical prediction indicating that the human race has less than 250 years before extinction, Reid Malenfant believes the only hope for survival is to restart a faltering space program. With a big dumb booster built from cannibalised space shuttle parts, and a genetically modified squid, Malenfant is out to mine the asteroids. But a message from the far future soon changes his plans.

Instead of his original target, he directs his mission to a different asteroid, where an amazing discovery awaits him and his squid. As Malenfant's schemes go awry, with squid beginning to bootstrap their way across the solar system, and with the government on his tail, everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

The heart of Time is two journeys. One into deep time, the other across a whole skein of possible universes. We see the immense nature of life in the slowly cooling and evaporating universe that lies as the stars gutter out, but experience the loneliness of what it means to be the only intelligent life in the universe. And we finally see the answer to the question, and the brave decision that changes everything we've learnt... and which sets the scene for and (though you don't need to read the Manifold books in order - in fact I was reading Time after Space...).

But as satisfying it as it is, Time's ending only answers part of Baxter's original question. We need to read the rest of the Manifold series to explore the rest of Baxter's phase space.

Well worth reading, if you enjoy hard SF with a cosmological and philosophical bent.
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Scenes from Barcelona

The coach back from the conference climbs high over the city, onto the slopes of Montjuic. The haze catches the light of the setting sun, and turns the city gold. The mountains are a pale shadow around the north of the city. Behind us the strange shape of the Olympic torch stands stark against a blue sky.
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In the city the streets are crowded. Past 8 o'clock, and it's the rush hour. The grids lock up, and the coach is stranded across a wide avenue. Around us, the buildings reach up, shops at their feet, apartments above the offices. This is a city that is lived in, a city that knows that it is more than just a place to work.
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TechEd is being held in the Montjuic 2 conference centre. Its wide halls are holding more than 10 streams of conference content, and over 5000 attendees. Around the breakout rooms are scattered exhibitions and food stations, while inside the audiences are confronted by giant screens of PowerPoint and code.
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Of course, one of the key questions at any Microsoft conference is: "What sort of bag will it be?". This year, it's a doozy, a wheeled bag suitable for more than just lugging a laptop from A to B. And the crowds of developers trailing their little blue and green traveling companions look like a strange insect migration, or turtles struggling up a beach to lay their eggs...
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