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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.