I love hard science fiction when i can vaguely understand it. I am nowhere near smart enough to understand astrophysics and the like, but I’m smart enough to keep and intuit some ideas. The idea of the cosmos fascinates me as well. Not knowing what is out there, (come on there has to be SOMETHING!) the limits of our technology throwing us further and further into the depths…good far out there hard science fiction is truly amongst my favorite genres to read. Especially when they connect it to our own human timeline, regardless of how far-future and tenuous that line happens to be! With that in mind, the first book Stephen Baxter’s “Xeelee” saga was pretty damn fascinating.
The idea of alien life always entertaining me, especially when that life is REALLY alien. For example, “Blindsight” by Peter Watts plays with the idea that alien life forms may take aspects that are completely new to us. The spectrum of light that the creatures see, their physical make up, the way they think; something completely off the beaten path from any theory that our own alien biologists could ever conceive. I’ve always been a firm believe that any alien life form we do encounter; it’s not going to be anything like life as we know it. So seeing some crazy ideas come to life in a novel is good fun for me. Baxter plays with these concepts quite well in “Raft”, though his creatures are still tangentially related to our earth bound life forms. He has flying trees! Yes, it’s spectacular that they fly! They’re still wood though. He has crazy space whales! They’re still pretty much like our whales when you get down to the nitty-gritty of the creatures makeup. They’re out there enough that they fit well into my ideas of fascinating life forms.
To branch off from that train of thought, one of my reading quirks is that seldom ever read a series of books in succession. Sure, I love the stories but if I read all the books in a series back to back, I start to feel bogged down and become a bit bored. It’s something I’ve always done and sometimes it might be a full year before I circle back to the second book. To wrap this back to the above alien life thought, Baxter stays in fairly familiar territory as far as life forms go throughout “Raft”. At the very end however, he changes things up a great way! It’s great enough that it leaves me thing, “I may have to go ahead and read book 2 just to see what this is all about!” For me, that’s a pretty strong sign. The best part is, the alien stuff? It’s not even the biggest concepts at play in “Raft”. Baxter has created a universe so far flung from our own that at times it’s hard to wrap your head around. The forces of gravity at play are magnitudes stronger than our own. Couple this with the fact that our characters live in a nebula and things get even weirder! His concepts seem fairly smart as well, to one such as myself that is again…not any kind of physicist.
While I enjoyed the hell out of “Raft”, I ultimately gave this one a 4 out of 5, and the reasons lie mostly in the characters and the small political sub-plot that runs the length of the book. While the characters are not bad by any means, most of our side characters outside of Rees are fairly one dimensional. We do get to connect to Rees and root for him throughout, the majority of the other characters feel like set pieces. While that does sound a bit harsh, I just didn’t connect to them much. The political sub-plot felt a bit forced as well, with three locations and three factions all spatting with each other. While I realize the need for this particular thread, it just didn’t come across to well for me. In the width of this fantastic book, it was these political moments that felt sluggish and the only moments that made me wish they’d hurry up and get it over with.
So in the end? I still REALLY LOVE SCIENCE FICTION! I’m also REALLY GLAD I READ THIS BOOK! I am really stoked to move on read more of Baxter’s “Xeelee” sequence and I have quite a bit of hope for the rest of the series. Taking a peak at the other books, things sound pretty sweet indeed.
EDIT: Aww, damn! Further research shows that “Raft” is a stand alone novel! Boo!