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Vacuum Diagrams: Short Stories in the Xeelee Sequence Paperback – 1998

3.5 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Paperback, 1998
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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Voyager (1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0006498124
  • ISBN-13: 978-0006498124
  • Product Dimensions: 11.8 x 3 x 16.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 240 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
PROS: Vast scope of ideas, steeply based in science, epic quality
CONS: Writing style is a bit dry
BOTTOM LINE: Great collection of related stories.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of related stories set in Baxter's Xeelee Universe.
The memorable things about Baxter's stories are not so much his characters, nor his writing style, which is a somewhat stiff, but rather his ideas. Each story contained in this collection contains some form of scientific concept that defies any simple comprehension due to sheer scale, large and small. Sometimes travel spans universes, sometimes beings are microscopic in size, and sometimes artifacts are light years wide. Baxter's signature hard science is present here in a big way.
The stories average 14 pages in length but are packed with all these ideas. Many of the stories, spanning 5 million years, reference the same events or reference each other, which is always a secret thrill for a science fiction reader.
One huge plus in Vacuum Diagram's is the Xeelee Sequence Timelins listed at the back of the book. This makes it prerequisite reading for anyone wishing to dive into Baxter's 4 Xeelee novels (in Xeelee Universe order: Timelike Infinity, Raft, Flux and Ring).
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I leave this book wondering how anybody could top it. It ends, literally, with the very last humans in the universe managing to leave the universe itself, through an artifact (the "Ring" of an earlier novel) thousands of light-years across. I don't think anybody will surpass the boldness of Baxter's imagination.
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.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
I truly enjoy science-based science fiction, and Stephen Baxter is one of the few writers who applies the latest discoveries and theories in particle physics to his novels. The only drawback is his story telling. Which leaves much to be desired. He can tell you about cosmic strings and inspire awe in you and a new way of looking at humanity and technology, but he really doesn't have a good grasp of the art of keeping a reader interested in the characters or the plot development. What carries his stories, (I have read 6 of his novels thus far)is his grand visions of the galactic struggles and technological advances. His visions of aliens are the most realistic and logical. They don't just have horns and an extra eye and limb, they are truly fundementally different from carbon based life forms. Some aren't even made of baryonic matter, they are made of Dark Matter. What's also great is that by the end of his novels you actually can grasp "Dark Matter" vs "Baryonic Matter". I recommend Stephen Baxter despite his shortcomings as a story teller just on the merits of his science based stories. Hopefully he'll improve in his future novels.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
First off, I the only reason I didn't give this book 5 stars is because, like others have said in their reviews, character development is kind of lax. In Baxter's defense however, the story is told in little vignettes spanning 5 million years. Of course you're going to have to leave old characters behind and introduce new ones. In my opinion, he does a passable - but not outstanding - job of character development.
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.
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