You don't need a degree in physics or quantum mechanics to understand the concepts Baxter presents, but an "armchair" familiarity with these disciplines will help. Still, Baxter does a very good job explaining difficult concepts within the stories. The scope of the overall story arc is amazing and it left me with a very warm feeling and a little more optimistic opinion about Humanity's future. For a scientist come late to writing, Baxter has achieved far more, in my opinion, than most of his hard SF contemporaries.
I have to concur with other reviewers: I like the science in Baxter's books, even if sometimes he is too dense. The four stars come from this. Sometimes the main interest lies not on the plot, but in the ideas presented.
Why should you read it? Standalone, it is interesting. In the Xeelee Universe, this book gives the background to others, through its short stories. I finally understood why the Xeelee Ring is associated with a human name, and some other details about the Xeelee and other races.
A previous reviewer mentioned that the characters are flat. So they are, but I think that really doesn't matter in this type of fiction, which instead offers mind-bending ideas, exciting struggles, etc. However, I have other issues with the book. It took a second reading before I realized that the stories aren't really stories, but more like series of events. They end with some wild idea or image (that the people depicted are about 1/20,000 of an inch tall, for example, or that a character literally doesn't have a past). There is nothing that makes you care what happens next. Of course, the book alludes huge struggles between immensely powerful races, which would work well to advance the plot (see Lord of the Rings), except we don't actually see the struggle. At one stage in the sequence, humans vie with the Xeelee for mastery of the universe, but we never see that struggle. Instead, we see very, very minor, incidental events.
Another qualm is that the science comes very close to hokum, at least partially, on a second reading. A computer driven mad by "quantum loneliness"? Baxter goes for the "gee whiz" without really earning it. The best hard science fiction (Benford's Eater, or Cosm, for example) doesn't just invoke science, it absorbs it and works within it. The result can create wonder, not just at the writer's imagination, but at the world itself.
Telling stories set against a vast backdrop is not easy.Read more ›