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on October 26, 2003
(***1/2)
This first volume of Baxter's "Manifold" triad is a tour de force of exposition masquerading as fiction. The writing is plenty lively enough, but this is the kind of hard s-f (one of the more satisfying kinds, for my money) in which the plot consists less in what happens to our heroes than in what dawns on them.
The characters themselves are two dimensional figures, stolen from old Heinlein stock, elitist and tiresomely self-confident and too crammed with genius to be believed. But that's okay. They are only there as screens onto which Baxter can project his dazzling tutorials on topology, time travel via retarded waves, paradoxical consequences of Bayesian statistics, sound ethical justifications for destroying the universe, and cosmology as a branch of genetics, among other perfectly serious loopy ideas. Who cares if the screen is two dimensional, if the movie succeeds in adding dimensions to your mind (almost painlessly) just for the price of admission?
The scale of Baxter's imagination is so large that I often couldn't settle on whether what I was reading was comical or awe-inspiring. And from chapter to chapter the scale keeps expanding. Think Olaf Stapledon on speed, and you'll hit near the mark.
Happily, volume one is completely self contained. So much so that it's not possible to conceive of a "sequel." The remaining two "Manifold" books take place in alternate universes that merely happen to include the same characters. So if you share my phobia of trilogies and tetralogies ("Do I dare crack this book, knowing that if I even half like it I'll have to read the rest to see how it comes out?"), fear no more. By the time this one volume is over, it has *all* come out, in spades. You can wait a decade or two to pick up the "next" volume, if you like, without dropping any threads.
If you like hard science fiction, you owe it to yourself to sample Baxter, and this is a fine place to start.
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on June 3, 2002
So, after reading a slew of post modern fantastic reality/mythic stuff by Gaiman, Mieville and others, I was in the mood for a good hard science fiction book. Stay with me...so I figure, you know, I keep hearing about this Baxter guy...He's even won science fiction awards and such. Plus, I love "time" stories (think Connie Willis). So I picked up this "Manifold:Time" thing. The thing is, it had a neat looking paperback cover too. Let me tell you - think twice before you make a similar choice.
This "story" (and I'm using the word generously) is nothing more than a painfully dull exercise in rehashing all the recent Hawking-type physics speculation that's been going around. The plot, if you can call it one, follows a ultra wealthy space advocate trying to save the human race from an earth-bound destiny. Geeze...Baxter throws in an ex-wife who just can't forsake her super-rich hubby, some emotionally devoid autistic kids, and a handful of super geeks who really have no business in the plot other to endlessly explain scientific theories to the more mentally challenged "characters" (and us, the readers, evidently). In fact, ALL the characters are emotionally void - not only the ones with autism. The most interesting person in the entire story was a squid...
But, don't get me wrong - if you like page after page of plotless, characterless scientific banter of a speculative nature, by all means buy this book...
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on March 25, 2002
This is a very deceptive book. It starts with no fanfare: I was immediately sucked into what appeared to be a great setup for a plot. However, I soon realized that the plot does not so much develop as advance jerkily and unpredictably. The reader is dropped into implausible situations that exist only to give his "scientific evangelist" characters a framework from which to lecture, Ayn Rand style, on some aspect of physics. In fact, the constant introduction of new physics seems to substitute for actual plot.
As soon as Baxter kills off the physicist responsible for most of the lecturing, the book degrades rapidly. Without physics to substitute for plot, the book drags on for a few hundred pages until it ends abruptly.
The idea of this book has merit. I was initially excited to see where Baxter would go with the ideas he proposes in the first chapter. But on many occasions, just when I thought the next physics lecture would tie everything together, he threw in something completely out of the blue.
The plot (what there is of it) does not resolve at the end. We are left with an great explosion, and a physics lecture to justify killing off every major character in the book.
Don't waste your time on this book.
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on March 30, 2001
Baxter wrote some very good descriptions of science knows or theorizes now in 2001. The major irritation is that he had to put a plot and make it fictionalized. As the Afterword shows, the major concepts described are real and have been talked about in the major scientific journels. The asteroid is real and the "Carter Catastrophe" is at least theoretically possible (or at least, not ruled out completely), and squid are really quite intelligent for invertibrates. In the speeches he gives his characters, Baxter presents the most mind-numbing concepts in a clear manner.
That said, it's the plot. The characters do things that make no logical sense. A billionaire, Reid Malenfant, decides to cobble together a space ship in a manner of months and genetically craft squid to do the driving. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Scrooge MacDuck couldn't and wouldn't even attempt something as off-the-wall as that and do it in a few months. A strange mathemetician pops up and claims the "intelligences" from the far future are attempting to communicate with us Earthlings. Go to this particular asteroid and, voila, our billionaire reconfigures this extremely expensive venture to a whole new target. Again, in a in a short amount of time.
Baxter, having read Clarke's superior Childhood's End, has these genius kids cropping up all over the place saying things that a Cal Tech Physicist would have trouble understanding. Are these kids good, bad, or Profoundly Evil. Baxter never quite explains that. There certainly isn't much in the way of to find out. And the squid, suddenly evolved to super-intellectual status, they could max out the SAT too. Are they good, bad, or Profoundly Evil, too? You get the feeling when a sizable portion of them cobble together super-spaceships out of an asteroid decide to decamp out near Jupiter that maybe we are better off without them.
Malenfant seems to have a profound God-complex. He gets profoundly depressed when on a jaunt through the Complete History of the Universe finds out that, no matter what, in ten to the one-to-the-one-hundred-and-sixteen years, Humanity or whatever intelligence evolves, will die out. He thus decides to help or at least condone the euthanization of the entire cosmos which the superkids, now living on the moon, are going to do. Jean Luc Picard would have at least waxed eloquent in defense of Humanity. I found the overall storyline to be profoundly depressing. Nevertheless, the Science was right on target.
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on March 7, 2001
Isaac Asimov once said a good SF writer will ask his reader to suspend disbelief only once. Here, Stephen Baxter asks us to do it, oh, 472 times (once per page). There is nothing remotely plausible about anything that happens in this book. It reminds me of a typical "postmodern" Hollywood movie-- stitched together from parts of other books or movies, never bothering to pretend that anything here could actually take place. Sections of "Children of the Damned" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" are lifted whole, as are long passages of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." OK, so it's intended to be a "romp" of sorts through the latest loopy theories about space-time and multiple universes. At least he could have made it a fun, engaging romp, instead of a grueling, depressing one.
"Manifold: Time" ranks as a major disappointment for this reader, who after devouring "Voyage" and "Titan" was well on his way to becoming a Baxter fan. But here, all of the negative habits that were merely annoying in his earlier efforts completely take over the work. As noted by other reviewers, there are no true "characters" here, only a series of pompous names attached to long blasts of expository "dialogue." Everyone-- even six-year-old kids-- talks like a nuclear physicist. Baxter's deep pessimism about the human race, his contempt for all forms of religion (but especially Christianity), and his apparent fascination with doomsday theories take center stage here, while the gritty, nuts-and-bolts realism and sense of adventure that made "Voyage" and parts of "Titan" so enjoyable are completely lacking. A Brit, he displays a puzzling lack of knowledge about how the U.S. government works, investing a mere congresswoman with all kinds of executive decision-making powers. But the worst sin is to make the notion that multiple universes might exist somehow boring! For a real "romp" through quantum physics and space-time, read Michael Crichton's "Timeline." It may be a piece of fluff, but at least you won't kick yourself for having wasted your time reading it, as I did with "Manifold: Time."
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on April 13, 2000
Stephen Baxter does indeed turn a hoary asteroid-mining tale into a cosmological epic sprinkled with (seemingly) esoteric mathematics, but he does it BADLY.
First, Bayesian statistic does not apply to evolving growing systems of indetemined lifetime, such as human species - especially if you take into account its possible descendants who no longer look human but trace their lineage back to us. In fact, explanation why that is so is present deeply buried in the book, but since that would destroy a major plot point, the faulty use of Bayesian statistic continues on.
The second fault is much worse, but is not manifest until the last few pages. Basically, a group of cosmically aware individuals (I won't reveal here who they are) realizes that the heat death of the Universe is inevitable, and that descendant of human race are eventually doomed no matter what. I won't reveal thair solution to this conundrum, but the problem is - their solution (bought at the cost of sacrificing human race *now*) DOES NOT SOLVE ANYTHING. Instead of one Universe doomed to eternal cold, they create many Universes doomed to eternal cold. When I read the last page, I was terribly disappointed.
Either Baxter did not think his own idea through, or he figured most readers won't. Judging by the glowing reviews below, he may have been right.
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on May 1, 2004
When I first picked up Manifold: Time I was unimpressed and put it down after 15 pages. Weeks later when I started reading it again out of boredom, I couldn't put it down. This book has some of the first new ideas I've come across in a while. Baxter isn't the GREATEST writer of all time, but he is the perfect man for this story. In a way, I see Manifold Time as scientific theology. It gives all life purpose, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
That all said, this book probably isn't for you if you hate science and want more of a space opera.
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As an ardent sci-fi fan since my early reading days, I have a collection dating back from the birth of the genre in the 30's up to it's heyday in the 70's and early 80's. I lost touch a bit and wandered off in the realms of the fantasy genre but I still get an urge for some proper sci-fi and frequently revisit Azimov, Pohl, Harrison and other cosy old favourites.

Apart from Iain M. Banks' superb `Culture' series, I hadn't read any offerings from the new generation of authors so I though it was time I dipped a toe in the water. I had a post-Christmas Amazon research frenzy and decided to get `Time' along with a number of others from a variety of authors.

It certainly lives up to the `hard sci-fi' label with loads of mind-boggling cosmology and quantum mechanics but I personally found that the frequent, and detailed, meanderings into these areas detracted from the narrative flow of an otherwise excellently written book. The short, choppy chapters, each based around an individual character maintained the pace and, once you got used to it, didn't interfere with the story.

I must confess, though, that I got to the end and thought `Hmmm, did I enjoy that?' Well written and encompassing a truly vast subject area, I however felt that it was a treatise on the author's understanding of the more obscure theories of space/time and that he threw in some one-dimensional characters as a bit of an afterthought; it felt like a much bigger book by a very capable author had been ruthlessly edited by a mathematician.
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on June 17, 2014
As many people have mentioned in reviews for this book and the other two novels in the trilogy, Baxter's prose will not be winning him any awards. His characters are not well-developed, some of the writing can become exceedingly technical (I often resorted to Wikipedia or Google during descriptions of the spaceships, various technical maneuverings, descriptions of the launch pad, and certain when certain other engineering dialogue presented itself), though if you invest the time in researching it does add the realism of the story, and there are more than a few points where it feels like the plot will never pick up, even after a new goal has been set. However, this is mass-market hard science fiction; if you're reading this, you're probably a scientist of some variety, interested in science, or just interested in cool ideas involving aliens, outer space, interstellar travel, time travel, etc. and don't really care about the characters and/or writing style. You want the experiences. And while there can be tedious parts, Baxter delivers. Some of the concepts dealt with in this book are absolutely mind-blowing, and he uses them all to very good effect. Additionally, when the book takes off, it really flies. The ending in particular, after they all go through the portal on Cruithne is simply riveting. The difficulty can be in getting there.

In summation, despite my reservations listed above, I liked this book. The interesting parts of this novel more than make up for the tedious ones. And in spite of the poor writing style and lack of character depth/complexity, Malenfant, Emma, and Cornelius still have enough life to make you like them. So long as you understand what you're in for and happen to have the correct constitution for it, I think this book has the potential to be quite enjoyable. Otherwise, I would advise going elsewhere.
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on July 18, 2004
For some reason, the current theories about just how our universe came to be and what its ultimate fate will be seems to have captivated many hard SF practitioners in the last few years. This book is certainly a member of that group (to the extreme!), but it also throws in backward quantum waves, quantum nuggets, Bayesian statistics, and an impending catastrophe that will literally wipe out humanity.
So there is certainly enough of the 'hard stuff' to satisfy any science enthusiast. But what of the story? This, perhaps, is just as wild as the science, imagining a single individual, Reid Malenfant, trying to propel the world into true space travel, real exploitation of the resources available there, who is just rich enough, and brilliant enough, to possibly bring it off, in the face of the by now de rigor opposition by environmentalists, NASA, EPA, FBI, Congress, and all the rest of the alphabet soup. But Reid becomes sidetracked when he is led to see what he believes is a message from the far future, causing a change of target to a small asteroid with an unusual orbit locked to Earth's. The initial probe is manned by an enhanced squid, whose development and behaviors from a significant sub-plot. But discovered on the asteroid is an obvious 'artifact', (clearly a crib from Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey), a glowing blue ring that apparently leads to other times and universes.
In the meantime, on Earth there has been a sudden appearance of 'Blue Children', fantastically intelligent, semi-autistic, who quickly gain the abhorrence of almost all 'normal' people as different, a threat to humanity as homo sapiens. Gathered together, these children apparently invent a machine to capture a quantum nugget, with perhaps dire consequences for the world.
How these separate threads get folded together into a truly gorgeous trip through the history and future of not just our universe, but many others, (a near biological spawning of universe from universe, each growing towards conditions that might spawn intelligent life), becomes complicated, and the vision itself has to carry the story, reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon in his wilder moments. Baxter almost brings this off, as the vision truly is grand, but in presenting this he seems to lose sight of the story of his characters, and the ultimate message of the book is either extremely depressing or seemingly irrelevant to people of today.
The science is real, the complications of the story worthy of something by A. E. van Vogt, but plot and science alone cannot carry the full weight of this story. His characters are introduced well, and I could easily believe in someone like Reid or his former wife and even Cornelius, but their growth (or lack of it) through the later parts of the story did not quite ring true. Neither did the portrayed world reaction to the Blue Children, the message of impending calamity, or the message from the future. A good attempt, but not fully successful.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
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