- Proxima Series (#2)
- Published by Gollancz
- First published in 2014
- Hard SF
- 545 pages
Having stepped through the Hatch on Proxima, Yuri Eden and his allies find themselves in a new timeline. A timeline in which the Roman empire never fell. Yet even here they are not safe. The End Time approaches for all . . .
The second (and final) book in the the Proxima series is a very different beast to its predecessor. Whereas Proxima started off as the highly detailed account of humanity’s first efforts at interstellar colonisation, before transitioning into a multiverse story, Ultima is a multiversal narrative through and through. We start off in a timeline where the Roman empire still reigns over Europe, but pretty soon we’re skipping into other parts of time and space. Again, there are two narrative streams that do not take place concurrently, though thankfully they merge together well before the end of the novel.
It’s not just in terms of page count that this is a larger book than its predecessor. Ultima basically forgets about the colonisation angle, and instead concerns itself with the inevitable death of the universe. Pretty heady stuff. All it takes is a glance at the author’s notes and acknowledgements to see how much research Baxter has put into this book. There are very few Hard SF writers still in the game, but Baxter must surely be leading the pack. Given how mindboggling some of the ideas in here are, Baxter is also remarkably good at communicating those ideas to an idiot like myself.
However, it’s the sheer scale of this book that leaves me cold. Covering as it does billions of years, it’s hard to be all that interested in the relatively small events we see. There’s the Roman world, an Inca world, and a return to Proxima. Each of these settings requires a lot of worldbuilding, and a full reset of everything we the readers, and the characters, know about their surroundings. In isolation, these settings have a lot of potential, but there’s little incentive to pay attention when you’re just going to be thrown into another new world in a hundred pages or so.
I also struggled with the central premise of Ultima. In essence, there’s the suggestion that there is a single unifying mind shared between all life in the universe, and that this mind has been working towards an agenda for all of history. Quite frankly, I find this idea ridiculous. It’s the Gaia principle writ large, yet somehow even less plausible. Precisely how any of this mind functions is beyond me. I’m sure Baxter could point to the science behind the idea, but to me it feels an awful lot like mysticism, which is wholly out of place amid the harder science in the rest of the book. But hey, maybe I’m just being ignorant, and this universal mind is the latest theory among real-life scientists, not just a crazy idea dreamed up for a work of fiction.
Overall, this is a significant step down from the previous book, but largely because it steps into waters I’d rather see untraveled. If you’re into more out-there ideas, maybe you’ll enjoy this more than I did.
Deeper Dive: Worlds of What If?
We spend the first half of this book in a Roman version of the future. However, none of it feels very futuristic. Yes, they have airships and space travel, but they still wear tunics and wield swords. They still hold slaves and expose their infant children to the wilderness. There seems to have been no societal development over the course of some two thousand years. The other empires mentioned are the Xin (China) and Brikante (an Anglo-Danish alliance). We see evidence of terraforming, but the people themselves feel like they’ve stepped out of the fifth century.
There’s an argument to be made that human nature fundamentally never changes, but this and other alternate histories fail to take into account how technology and society often make changes hand-in-hand. I find it difficult to credit that a society could go a thousand years after their industrial revolution and not develop some kind of computer. Likewise, the Greeks are still philosophers, the Arabs navigators. Everything seems frozen in archetype, as if Baxter didn’t know how to show the passage of time while still keeping the Roman flavour.
All of this holds true for the Inca section as well. Two thousand years on and there’s still human sacrifice. It’s possible, but it seems unlikely. It strikes me that Baxter may have looked at each civilisation in isolation, whereas in reality, even a subjugated people have a massive impact on their conquerors. And don’t even get me started on the last minute addition of a certain German regime surviving into the far future. That mine has been well and truly exhausted, so perhaps it’s some form of salvation that Baxter saves it for the very last pages.
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