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January 1, 2009

A flurry of RSS activity reveals that my review of Stephen Baxter’s Flood has gone up over at The SF Site.

To say that I am pleased with how it came out is something of an understatement.

  1. January 8, 2009 11:57 am

    An excellent piece Jonathan (a comment you’ll see soon on the Jekyll and Hyde piece also).

    An issue I think Baxter constantly struggles with, is the challenge of depicting cosmic time within a human perspective. It’s a challenge, because it’s not really possible, though he does a better job than any other writer I can think of in this area (save maybe Stapledon, whom you quite rightly reference).

    It does seem, however, as if his level of productivity is negatively impacting the quality, which in a writer of his calibre is definitely regrettable. I am though at least relieved that he hasn’t sought to fit yet another work in his Xeelee sequence, which I think is long past concluded and which I hope he now moves on from (good as it was at its best).

    The empty-headed seal like creatures sound like an homage to Vonnegut’s Galapagos, a hugely funny novel. I have it if you haven’t read it and would like the comparison. I definitely agree that Baxter excels at depictions of change, and the unattractiveness of it from the perspective of the old order. Much of the comedy of Galapagos comes from the same perspective, it’s only horrible from the viewpoint of us extinct big-brained humans, for the future inhabitants of Galapagos things are much better really.

    It is perhaps time to retire Malenfant (a character I never liked) and the survival-focussed woman. I’ve no problem with Baxter using stock characters, characterisation is not the point of his works, but some new stock ones would at this stage be refreshing. I thought Conqueror much stronger in this regard (I think Emperor is the one with sub-Roman Britain isn’t it?), with some characters that were actually interesting and likeable without being in some way superhuman.

    Still, great review, putting this work in context within the body of his wider work seems fruitful and it’s interesting to see Baxter once again approaching issues of time, change, the finite nature of human experience and the fallacy of the notion that we inhabit some special and privileged viewpoint.


  2. January 9, 2009 12:04 pm

    Glad you liked the piece.

    I definitely think that you’re right about Baxter’s concern with a human scope for galactic events and I think it’s clearly an issue that he really struggles with as an author. I think the Time’s Tapestry books showed that he can do characters and human drama and I think that Flood was an attempt to take that skillset and bring it back to his SF. I don’t think it was successful this time and the book only really comes alive when he steps back from his characters but I think it’s a good thing that he is still working on this aspect of his writing. The Baxter of 10 years ago would not have bothered to try and tie Flood’s different characters together.

    I agree that Malenfant needs to go, as does the survival-obsessed woman. I’m just grateful that this book did not herald the return of one of his other stock characters; the corrupt and sensual fat man. Prior to Time’s Tapestry he went through a phase where every book would contain some fat man proclaiming horrific political viewpoints whilst wiping grease from the folds of his numerous chins.

    I think you should check out Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories collection. He’s also very good on the otherness inspired by social change. It was also the stand-ut SF book of last year if you ask me.


  3. January 9, 2009 1:31 pm

    I’ll check that book out, I’ve not even heard of it.

    By struggles with, I should really have said grapples with. It’s not that I think he struggles in the sense of trys and fails, it’s rather that I think he grapples with these issues but by their nature there is a limit to how well one can address them and that limit is the one he’s trying to push back.


  4. January 10, 2009 12:27 pm

    It’s well worth looking out for. I’m usually rather unimpressed by short fiction (there’s too much rubbish and the good ones are never long enough) but Bacigalupi’s collection is just superb American dystopian fiction.

    As for Baxter, I think you were right the first time actually. I think his recent career can be seen as a series of attempts at improving that side of his writing but I think your less personal version of the same problem is equally true.


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