Introduction to
Stephen Baxter

Paul McAuley

Don't be deceived by his modest and exceedingly polite demeanour or by his bespectacled and mild-mannered impersonation of an university computer systems administrator. Stephen Baxter is possessed of a dangerously fertile imagination, a deep understanding of esoteric but essential information (just like a UNIX-wielding sysadmin, in fact), and a fearsome ambition.

Steve's very first published short story, ''The Xeelee Flower'', was the seed for an ambitious future history which, in four novels and some two dozen short stories, encompasses the entire history of the Universe -- and now his latest short stories are beginning to fill in the gaps in that future history.

And there's more. He is, after all, the only sf writer to have applied to become the first British astronaut (and to have gotten within an ace of the final cut); he seems to want to place a story in every imaginable science fiction market, and looks like succeeding; he's the only writer to have collaborated with both the alpha and the omega of British sf, Wells and Clarke. Steve's The Time Ships, the official sequel to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, is not only a tremendously convincing impersonation Wells's authorial voice, but also expands the original story with breathtaking imaginative leaps through a sheaf of ever stranger alternate histories and multiplying paradoxes. And his collaboration with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, The Light of Other Days, casually encompasses the entire history of Earth in its story of the scientific and social consequences of a device which enables one to view any moment in the past.

In these, as in all his fictions, Steve Baxter takes the most outrageous notions of contemporary science and folds them into thoroughly plausible stories. There's the weird pocket universe of his first novel, Raft, in which humans have managed to conquer a strange environment shaped by a high gravitational constant. There's the biosphere within the crust of a neutron star in Flux; there's the dizzy perspectives of deep time in Ring and Time: Manifold 1. Closer to home, there's the epic geological disaster of Moonseed, and the thoroughly worked alternate history of Voyage, which describes what would have happened if NASA's great lost opportunity of sending a manned mission on Mars in the eighties had actually come off.

Following Gregory Benford's dictum about hard sf, Steve Baxter plays with the net up: and he plays a determined game, with lots of top spin and some nifty footwork. His fictions are informed by a deep awareness of the core traditions of sf, and particularly the virtues of the best hard science fiction from Clement through Clarke to Niven, which is to say scrupulous and thoroughly worked-out extrapolations of cutting edge science tempered by a deeply ingrained optimism. His universes buzz and bloom with all kinds of exotic life, from the dark-matter creatures which ultimately inherit the Universe in his future history, the Xeelee sequence, to all manner of creatures inhabiting seemingly inhospitable environments from Mercury to Pluto. And in all these strange niches life leads inexorably to intelligence which struggles to apprehend the Universe. It's entirely logical that as a sideline to his hard sf, Baxter should have written a trilogy which lends mammoths the dignity of their own civilisation, and a perspective which puts mankind's brief appearance on the wide stage of the world's history to shame.

So don't be deceived by your guest-of-honour. He may seem as mild-mannered as Clark Kent, but he's a dangerous man. There are universes in his head, waiting to explode with story. Ask him about his ideas: he's as enthusiastic about them in person as he is on the page. And prepare to be amazed.

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