Imagine a race of submicroscopic humans, genetically engineered to live in the universe's most hostile environment, the turbulent superfluid mantle of a neutron star
Imagine that the memory of the superbeings who created them has been kept alive from generation to generation.
Now imagine the most incredible family reunion in history--and you're ready for the latest mind-expanding adventure
Star humans were engineered to exist within the mantle of a star, mere tools of their Earth-evolved makers in a war against the Xeelee, owners of the universe. Stephen Baxter's third novel in his magnificent Xeelee Sequence is an exotic and endearing story of an abandoned people.
Stephen Baxter is a trained engineer with degrees from Cambridge (mathematics) and Southampton Universities (doctorate in aeroengineering research). Baxter is the winner of the British Science Fiction Award and the Locus Award, as well as being a nominee for an Arthur C. Clarke Award, most recently for Manifold: Time. His novel Voyage won the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Novel of the Year; he also won the John W. Campbell Award and the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel The Time Ships. He is currently working on his next novel, a collaboration with Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Mr. Baxter lives in Prestwood, England.
I try to read most books without reading the synopsis first, it is more fun discovering the story that way, but for Stephen Baxter’s books this never work out. Baxter has an immense imagination backed by a profound knowledge of science. He is also quite a good storyteller, definitely an ideal combo for writing hard sci-fi… but! I suspect he may find it difficult to conceive how little the layman understand scientific principles that he takes for granted. I imagine he hasn’t been a layman since the age of five or something.
The setting for Flux is even weirder than Raft, the book is set on a neutron star where microscopic genetically engineered “humans” live in the star’s mantle. These people do not walk around, they move by “Waving” a sort of swimming on magnetic field lines. If I understand correctly there is no gravity as such so nothing ever fall in this book and the concepts of up and down is not as we would experience it. The “humans” do not see, hear, breathe or taste as we do. I don’t really know enough science to explain any of this I am sorry to say. (Hopefully I will some help in the comments).
I have read thousands of science fiction books but I don’t think have read one set on a star before (as opposed to a planet). I had to google stuff about core, mantle and crust to have a better idea of the setting. If your knowledge of science (especially physics) is as limited as mine but you still want to read this book then I suggest you read the synopsis first (on the back of the book, or on Goodreads, Amazon etc.), even then don’t worry too much about understanding the science just let Mr. Baxter tells his story and things will gradually become clearer.
The funny thing is the plot of this book is quite simple to follow. The main theme is basically a struggle to survive and the story eventually becomes about a character’s attempt to save the world (which is a star, not a planet). In contrast to the science the characters’ motivations are extremely easy to understand, this makes it fairly easy to follow the plot.
There is quite a lot of neologism in this book, the odd thing is that they are common words with the first letter capitalized, like Air, Wave, Human Beings etc. The author clearly wants the reader to infer the meanings of these words through the narrative, I have only been partially successful.
Dialog, prose style and characterization are clearly not Baxter’s strong points. The great Arthur C. Clarke had the same weaknesses, except he explained the science behind his fiction much more accessibly in my opinion. That said I think Baxter is a little (not a lot) more successful with character development. These are not wonderful, complex and believable characters you get in a Tolstoy novel but the few central characters are amiable enough. As for the damn Xeelee aliens once again they barely show up, considering Flux is part of the Xeelee Sequence they tend be play very hard to get!
Any way, massively impressive world building backed by real science, likable characters and a good story. Fans of hard sci-fi should enjoy this, especially if their grounding in science is up to snuff. As for me, I quite like it!
So ends my last review of the four volumes from my copy of the Xeelee omnibus edition. Over all it has been a fun if often incomprehensible ride (on the scientific side). There are several other volumes outside of this omnibus in the full Xeelee Sequence which I will probably catch up with sooner or later.
In three short books Stephen Baxter has become one of my favorite authors. These Xeelee books have been so alien and unique and exciting and straight incredible it’s beyond my ability to describe. This kind of science not adequately explained would be totally off putting with a story like this but he has a way of explaining everything and incorporating so much cool tech and ideas into the story it’s like eating a giant spoonful of buttercream icing and having your eyes roll up in your head, that’s how I felt per page. It was dazzling. I don’t think I have the vocabulary or the intelligence to correctly explain what happens here but the ride was tremendously fun and unlike anything I have read before.
I wanted to like this book, I really did. But I didn't. It's certainly not because I don't enjoy hard sf. Far from it. The first two in Baxter's Xeelee sequence, while far from literary triumphs, at least kept my attention and were fun to read. I have to admit that after 160 pages of Flux, I was forced to do something I never do: skim through sections until I hit some meat, which was much closer to the end of the story than I would have liked. I didn't care about any of the storylines except one and most of the micron-sized human characters were flat. I did care about the last thirty pages, which, in my humble opinion, rescued Flux from an even worse rating. I will go on to read Ring because my understanding is that the events in the fourth novel in the Sequence are more closely related to Michael Poole and Timelike Infinity, which I very much enjoyed.
Well, it's not that they're bad novels per se, it's just that they're so... parochial. They're absolutely not space operas, but small stories of a small group of ignorant people on a remote corner of the universe. That universe happens to be the same as "Timelike Infinity", so I read them just because of that, but if you're planning to read the Xeelee saga, you can skip Raft and Flux and have a better time sleeping, they feel so alien to the "proper" Xeelee universe, in the sense that they feel like caricatures inside an adult film.
Disappointing, lame, boring. The characters react unbelievably to external stimuli. You keep wishing for the book to end.
I've heard so much praise of the Xeelee saga, but with 3 books read, and 2 of them terrible... I'm beginning to think this saga may be veeery overrated.
Flux by Stephen Baxter, Book 3 in the Xeelee sequence, did not live up to the first two novels. I made a huge mistake in that I should have never moved on to this book after immediately having read Timelike Infinity. I absolutely loved that book and was thrilled with the hard science, deep philosophy, and great characters. With such an emotional impact, I should have waited a bit to move on to this book. I am giving this read 3 stars only because the world building is that good.
It is sad that I did not like this book more. After all, this book takes place in one of the coolest places ever!!!! Inside the sun. Baxter makes things even more original by making this book be about Humans that are created by original Earth Humans. These people are adapted to survive the crazy environment of the sun. The world building in Flux is beyond words and will be very memorable…bravo Baxter.
The characters are as cool as the environment. They are a man-made Humanoid race made for the Sun. Oh did I mention that they are small…damn small, they are 100 thousand times smaller than us. They are adapted to the heat and the magnetic fields of the sun. Yet in the end, they are very much like us, with the same wants, needs, and skills. Freaking sweet.
Ironic that this novel that takes place in one of the most hostile and unknown environments is really a straight forward adventure with a tiny splash of science fiction. How different from the first two books of The Xeelee Sequence. For me, this was a huge mistake and this book pales in comparison to 1 and 2. I really hope that as the series moves on that Baxter gets back to Hard Science. This one was a huge disappointment.
This was an imaginative place Baxter came up with, but it did not work for me at all. The day to day lives of these people did not interest me, and the adventure the story is leading ever so slowly to did not feel worth the effort to get there. Even suspension of disbelief was tough. If he'd just said these are microscopic people and got on with the story, it might not have been so hard to immerse myself. But he kept getting into the details of how everything worked, which kept bringing me back to the impracticality of human-level intelligence in a microscopic organic being. That's aside from doing things like capitalizing certain words like Air so you know there's something unusual there, but maybe only explaining Air beyond context very far into the book. And the less said about jetfarts the better, but get ready to hear about superfluids a good amount. As far as "the most incredible family reunion in history", it was only incredible in the sense of incredible being not credible, and more so, I can't believe that's what I read through 20+ chapters to get to.
Most importantly, I was foolishly reading a book labelled Xeelee Sequence #3 expecting there might actually be something substantive involving the Xeelee. While Xeelee are a catalyst or driver of the story, virtually nothing is learned about the Xeelee here. So that's almost nothing about Xeelee in book 1, a few tantalizing morsels about them in book 2, and almost nothing about them in book 3. Book 4 has been recommended if I'm interested in the Xeelee, and if there's not some real meat about them in that book the only thing stopping me throwing it across the room is that it'll be an e-book.
I absolutely cannot recommend this. Only giving it 2 stars because of the imaginative use of scientific concepts that's on display. If you want to know what the probably limited relevance of this book might be to the next book, Ring, here it is.
This series must converge at a specific point, If baxter is going to put everything in the Xeelee world, it will be a great series but I can't go on, I just found out there are 17 books in the series and i don't have time now i will come back to Xeelee one day... i promise Baxter 🧠
9+ Yes, I can see how people would award this book lesser stars. There are some pretty critical reviews on here. And I can see where those critics come from. I would even agree with them, I think, if I didn't pick up this book to read a Stephen Baxter tale. If a Stephen Baxter story is what you want to read - a far future story, featuring almost uncomprehensible science, rocking your brain, encompassing a scale of galaxies and larger and grand conclusions with a sense of awe about them - this is a treat. It's pure Baxter sense of wonder. And yes, reading a Baxter story also means that the characters are not the core of the plot, but subservient to it, worked out to just the level for the story to function. But sometimes (often in my opinion) that is enough: I do not necessarily want to know the inside of these characters, but I want to look outside through their eyes, experience their lives in a totally different world, a totally different state of being. And for that these people are done well. And what a world they live in. This is hard SF taken to its most extreme: the reader is asked to plunge into the mantle of a neutron star, where microscopic beings of immense density weave their lives among the magnetic lines, building up technology from the wood of utterly alien trees, waving instead of walking, but with memories of life between the stars. This is a 'What if' of epic proportions and I was taken with the way Baxter extrapolates: ways the culture is shaped, ways predators work in this environment, ways the surroundings get dangerous the deeper people go, ways myths become legends. I really liked all the ideas here. Take a look at the cover and know that depicted is a city that plays an important part in the story, and marvel at the imagination that was able to come up with a concept like that! Even so, in spite of the grand scale, this is a small, human story about people living in the wild coming into contact with another culture and learning both are treathened by changes in the interior of the star. There are epic journeys, revelations and disaster that I saw happening in front of my eyes as it was described. Not for the fainthearted, but for those liking their speculation on the epic side this is really recommended. It helps if you know a bit about Baxters Xeelee-sequence, but it is not really necessary, as this is a bit of a side-tale to that.
As far as I remember, I've only read & reviewed Baxter's The Time Ships so far - this, then, being the 2nd bk I read by him. The Time Ships continues H.G. Wells's The Time Machine & I very much enjoyed it for that. In my review of The Time Ships I wrote:
"On the back cover of the edition of The Time Ships that I have, the author is referred to as "today's most acclaimed new "hard SF" author, and the acknowledged heir to the visionary legacy of Wells, Heinlein, and Clarke". That might be in a parallel universe b/c I don't recall hearing about him until I got this bk, wch was published in 1995. Of course, I don't know EVERYTHING, just every other thing. Regardless, the notion of the multiverse wasn't postulated in MY universe until the mid-20th century so it's things like that that make this different from Wells's original The Time Machine. I admit, I wd've settled for the Time Traveller going back to the same future, finding Weena, & fucking her brains out w/ explicit description — but I can't fault Baxter for making the bk be an epic exploration of possibilities that cd be scientifically hypothetized way back in the 1990s before everyone had cell-phones & the world completely changed all over again." - https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/...
& there's a similar review on the back of this bk. I'd certainly give the author credit for having a wonderful imagination & pursuing it in significant detail. One thing that particularly interests me about him is the following from the 1st inside page:
"Stephen Baxter applied to become an astronaut in 1991. He didn't make it, but achieved the next best thing by becoming a science fiction writer"
There's nothing like a little imminent disaster to get a novel off to a good start:
"Dura scrambled across the Magfield flux lines to the Net. Men, women and older children were gathered in tight huddles, their thin bodies bumping together as the floated in the turbulent Magfield, laboring at the Net. They cast fearful, distracted glances at the approaching vortex instabilities, and from all around the Net Dura could hear muttered or shouted prayer-chants, pleas for the benevolence of the Xeelee." - p 12
Have you ever thought about the closeness of "pleas" & "please"?
This is a future in wch the birth canal has been engineered to not be such a problem child:
"Dia's pelvis was hinged; with the birth so close the cartiledge locking the two segments of the pelvis together would have dissolved into Dia's blood, leaving her pelvis easily opened. Her birth canal and vagina were already stretching, gaping wide. Everything was working together to allow the baby's head easy passage from the womb to the Air. It's easy, Dura thought. And it's easy because the Ur-humans designed it to be easy, maybe even easier than for themselves..." - p 21
"That wasn't a surprise, of course. Every kid learned at his mother's breast how the Ur-Humans had come from somewhere far away – a place much better than this, of course; Adda suspected every human on every world grew up believing that – and had left children here to grow, to be strong, and to join the community of mankind one day, all under the beneficial and all-too-abstract gaze of that multiple God, the Xeelee." - p 26
"Star Humans are microscopic, but their hopes and fears, and loves, are not. And the future of humans everywhere, on Earth and among the stars, depends on their courage in the face of attack by the mighty Xeelee, owners of the universe." - back cover
Hence the stage is set for a whole series of novels by Baxter (apparently this is the 3rd of them, wch I didn't realize, so the stage has long-since been set).
"Farr looked up.
"Leaves – six of them arranged in a neat, symmetrical pattern – hung down just above his head. With a surge of absurd gratitude Farr pulled himself up into the darkness beyond the leaves.
"A branch about the thickness of his waist and coated with slick-dark wood led from the leaf into a misty, blue-glowing darkness above him . . . no, he thought, that was the wrong way round; somewhere up there was the trunk of the tree, suspended from the Crust, and from it grew this branch, and from that in turn grew the leaves which faced the Sea." - pp 30-31
One of the most impressive things about this novel for me is Baxter's ability to describe a world so different from our own biomorphically & consistently. In the above case, the 'upside-downess' of it: the "Human Beings" exist in the air, the grounded objects are over their heads, the "Sea" is NOT a body of water, etc.. It was fun adjusting to imagining the described environment.
"The tree trunk she'd followed had broadened only gradually, at last reaching a width just too great for her to stretch her arms around. Now, suddenly, the clean lines of the trunk exploded into a complex tangle of roots which formed a semi-circular platform over her head. Peering up, she could see the roots receding into the dim translucent interior of the Crust itself" - p 44
Keeping in mind that the "Human Beings" are microscopic in contrast to ourselves what these "trees" consist of is unknown to me.
"'Let's have a little lesson. Why do you think the leaves are so tasty?'
"Farr thought about that. 'Because they're sull of protons.'
"Dura nodded seriously. 'Near enough. Actually they are laced with protein-rich isotopes – of krypton, strontium, zirconium . . . even a little heavy iron. Each nucleus of krypton, for instance, has a hundred and eighteen protons, while the tin nuclei of our bodies have just fifty each. And our bodies need protons for their fuel.'" - pp 32-33
What's a proton?
"Proton, stable subatomic particle that has a positive charge equal in magnitude to a unit of electron charge and a rest mass of 1.67262 × 10−27 kg, which is 1,836 times the mass of an electron.
"Protons, together with electrically neutral particles called neutrons, make up all atomic nuclei except for the hydrogen nucleus (which consists of a single proton). Every nucleus of a given chemical element has the same number of protons. This number defines the atomic number of an element and determines the position of the element in the periodic table. When the number of protons in a nucleus equals the number of electrons orbiting the nucleus, the atom is electrically neutral."
Can we eat protons? According to Jerzy Michal Pawlak, ex particle physicist, on Quora:
"Free protons would be very difficult to eat, because as charged particles they strongly repel each other, so you can’t even easily gather a macroscopic amount of free protons without adding electrons to keep the protons together. And if you add electrons but insist that they don’t bind to the protons, the protons are still free, then technically you have what we call plasma. Eating hot plasma (at thousands Kelvins) is definitely unhealthy.
"Free neutrons present another difficulty: they don’t bind together and are not easily confined by matter. So it would not be easy to eat them. And unadvisable: free neutrons are radioactive, which is unhealthy, and they also bind easily to atomic nuclei inside your body, making those nuclei radioactive. Unhealthy!
"The way to go is to allow protons bind with neutrons into stable nuclei, and also add electrons to the mix, to balance the positive charge of the protons and also make the nuclei bind into molecules, and molecules into liquid or solid state, easy to eat. Some combinations of protons, neutrons and electrons are really yummy, and some others are healthy :)"
Scale is a matter of recurring presence & interest.
"Mansheights? he thought, distracted. A practical measure, he supposed . . . but what was wrong with microns? A mansheight would be about ten microns – a hundred-thousandth of a metre – if it meant what it sounded like . . ."
Hence, these "Human Beings" wd be about 150,000th of our height.
"She tried to keep her voice steady. 'I think so. I'm just a little taken aback by the speed of this thing, I suppose.'
"He frowned and squinted out through his window. 'We're not going so fast. Maybe a metre an hour.[']" - p 74
"'Do you know how big the City is? Ten thousand mansheights, from side to side. And that's not counting the Spine.' The little car continued to edge its way, cautiously, around the City, like a timid Air-piglet looking for a place to suckle. Toba shook his head. 'Even the Ur-humans would have been impressed by ten thousand manshieghts, I'll bet. Why, that's almost a centimetre . . .'" - pp 86-87
"Three metres deep.
"It was a depth Dura couldn't comprehend. Humans were confined within the Mantle to a shell of superfluid Air only a few metres thick. Her first journey with Toba to the Pole from the upflux – so far that she had felt she was travelling around the curvature of the Star itself – had only been about thirty metres." - p 257
[Reviewer's note: I often refer to differences between American English & British English. Webster deliberately changed American English to be different from British English, usually more stripped-down: as in the change from colour to color & favour to favor & labour to labor. One of my 'favorites' of these changes is theatre to theater wch creates the immediate problem of how to spell theatrical. Of course, the solution is to just spell it the British way - meaning that the change from theatre to theater really serves no purpose other than gratuitous differentiation. Same for metre to meter. When I was a child, I was taught that when adding a suffix to a word ending in a consonant that the consonant was doubled. Hence travel turned into travelling - as it appears in the above quote from this British author. However, as the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary notes:
"When it comes to spelling the forms of the verb travel, traveled and traveling are more common in the U.S., and travelled and travelling are dominant everywhere else." - https://www.merriam-webster.com/words...
It seems to me that this practice of dropping the doubled consonant in the US has happened in my lifetime but maybe it started way-back-when w/ Webster. Regardless, if you, as a writer, ever get 'corrected' by some pompous creep to one version or another be assured that they have a limited pseudo-knowledge that they shdn't try to impose on anyone else.]
"She frowned and pointed out the second cylinder to Hork. 'What do you think that is? It looks like a fortress. Perhaps the Ur-humans needed to shelter – perhaps they came under attack . . .'
"He was laughing at her, not unkindly. 'No, Dura. You've lost the scale. Look at it again. It's maybe – what ten thousand mansheights tall?'
"'Ten times as big as your glorious Parz City.'
"'Maybe, but that's still only 10 centimetres or so. Dura, the Ur-humans were metres tall. The hand of an Ur-human could have engulfed that cylinder.' He was watching her slyly. 'Do you see it yet? Dura, that's a food vessel. A cup.'
"She stared. A cup, large enough to hold a dozen Parz Cities?
"She tried to keep thinking. 'Well,' she said, 'then it's a damn odd cup. All the food would float out of the top. Wouldn't it?'
"Hork nodded grudgingly. 'You'd think so.' He sighed. 'But then, there are many things about the Ur-humans we can't understand.'" - pp 315-316
&, yes, there's even class in this microscopic world.
"Dura shook her head. 'Folk here don't hunt, Farr. I've learned that much. They grow special kinds of grasses, and eat them.'
"Mixxax laughed bitterly. '"Folk here", as you call them, don't even do that. I do that, in my scrubby farm on the edge of the upflux desert. I grow food to feed the rich folk in Parz . . . and I pay them taxes so they can afford to buy it. And that,' he finished bitterly, 'is how Hork's courtiers have enough leisure time to grow flowers.'" - pp 76-77
& there're even toilets.
"Toba showed the Human Beings a place to clean themselves – a room containing chutes for waste and spherical bowls holding scented cloth. Dura and Farr, left alone in this strange room, tried to use the chutes. Dura pulled the little levers as Tova had shown them, and their shit disappeared down gurgling tubes into the mysterious guts of the City. Brother and sister peered into the chutes, open-mouthed, trying to see where it all went." - p 96
&, of course, where there's class there's servitude.
"The woman was about Dura's age but a good deal plumper; her hair-tubes were elaborately knotted into a gold-and-white bun, and layers of fat showed over her cheekbones. With the air of a professional she peered into the boy's eyecups, ears and nostrils; she bade him open his mouth and ran a finger around his gums, inspecting the scrapings she extracted. Then she poked at Farr's armpits, anus and penis-cache." - p 128
& what about their hypothetical makers?
"'What were they like, the Ur-Humans?'
"'We can't be sure – the Core Wars and the Reformation haven't left us any records – but we do have strong hypotheses, based on scaling laws and analogies with ourselves. Analogous anatomy was my principle subject as a student . . . Of course, that was a long time ago. They were much like us. Or rather, we were made in their image. But they were many times our size – about a hundred thousand times as tall, in fact. Because he was dominated by balances between different sets of physical forces, the average Ur-human was a metre tall, or more.[']" - p 137
& human nature marches on.. even at this microscopic level.
"At last Hosch seemed to exhaust his anger, and he Waved away to some other part of the hopper line. The labourers who had gathered to relish Farr's humiliation – men & women alike – gave up their surreptitious surveillance and, with the smugness of spared victims, fixed their attention back on their work." - p 140
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this novel is imagining humans, as we currently know ourselves, evolving into creatures capable of miniaturizing a version of ourselves & seeding an environment w/ the miniatures that our currently sized humans wdn't be able to inhabit. Then there's imagining how the replicated human characteristics wd play out under these new conditions.
"Muub was no lover of the great outdoors, but he relished the Garden. He tilted back his stiff neck, looking up into the yellow-gold Air. To be here beneath the arching, sparkling vortex lines of the Pole – and yet securely surrounded by the works of man – was a fulfilling, refreshing experience. It seemed to strengthen his orderly heart that the Garden was an artifact, a museum of tamed nature – but an artifact which stretched for no less than a square centimetre around him . . . The Garden was enough to make one believe that man was capable of any achievement." - p 174
"[']I have asked you to view the Garden today as my guest, as a friendly gesture to one who is new to Parz and who is alone here. But frankly, if you're not prepared to be courteous then you are free to depart.'
"'Oh, I'll behave,' Adda grumbled. 'Though I'll not swallow the pretense that you've done me any sort of favour by treating my injuries. I know very well that you're exacting a handsome price for the labor of Dura and Farr.'
"Muub frowned. 'Ah, your companions from upflux. Yes, I understand they have found indentures.'
"'Slave labour," Adda hissed." - p 175
The clashing of cultures that I've only hinted at in the quotes thickens the plot as the dominant culture decides it may have a need for the wilder ones.
"'Muub, we have to think wider. Beyond the City, even. What about those weird upfluxers you told me about? The old man and his companions . . . curiosities from the wild. The upfluxers are Xeelee cultists, aren't they? Maybe they could tell us something; maybe they have preserved the knowledge we have foolishly destroyed.'" - p 190
Incredible. Life inside the mantle of a star, where breathable "Air" is actually more nearly a liquid than a gas with a density nearly identical to a human body, where "humans" essentially swim instead of walk. In addition to the hard science fiction aspects, I really enjoyed the contrast between the primitive but wise outsiders with the cultured but ignorant people of the city.
I've enjoyed Baxter's novels, but this was the best so far. The climax kept pushing until the end, and the story had so many intricate points. There was enough resolution for the main characters to give satisfaction, and yet enough left open that makes me want to start reading the next book in the Xeelee Sequence right now.
"Painfully slow,..." There. Yes. That's a quote. From the book. I'm not gonna give the context, since I think it is never out of place in the ENTIRE book, the storyline being good for about 1/5th or even 1/10th of its size.
And the science. It is all off. Flux lines! Flux lines can't hit you! They are not discrete as implied in the story multiple times. Smelling photons. Impossible because it depends on a faster than light physiology. Not to mention instantaneous vision of far away objects is not possible, in an environment where photons diffuse like gas.
Flirted with giving this one 3 stars. For the first 2/3 of the book the fact that everyone's a microscopic being living inside a neutron star is essentially irrelevant. We just have a very slow story of aborigines seeing the big city for the first time. Of course at the end it goes all Baxtery and big things happen very quickly.
A few years ago I got really into Baxter's Xeelee Sequence and bought every book I could find in the series. I never really had much interest in Flux as it sounded the least interesting of the series and I knew it wouldn't have any real significance in the greater Xeelee/Ring storyline, but I found a nice hardcopy edition of it so I picked it up anyway. As predicted, this was the least good of all the Xeelee books I've read so far, although I definitely wouldn't call it bad.
One of my favorite things about Baxter is his ability to come up with creative aliens which truly feel alien and not just like re-colored humans or insects. Although this book is technically about actual humans, the setting is extremely weird, creative, and suceeds in feeling genuinely "alien". The writing itself is also quite good (although WAY too much completely unnecessary gross body stuff, prepare to hear about "jetfarts" endlessly...ugh). Another place this story shines is that it's about actual characters who have depth, personality, and experience growth over the course of events. I don't know if I particularly liked the characters per say, but I found myself invested in them. This is incredibly rare to find in hard sci fi, so points have to be awarded for that. There is a ton of science throughout this book (probably too much tbh), which I definitely appreciated and found interesting, however I found it difficult to visualize a lot of what was described and understand how it all functioned and worked together (that's not really good nor bad, just pointing it out.)
Unfortunately though, despite the enormously novel setting, the story itself is rather mundane. While there is tons of science thrown around, the setting doesn't fundamentally impact the narrative all that much; the same story could have been told in any number of other settings/times and been almost identical. It's your standard tale of outsiders living in a harsh, unforgiving environment who have basically reverted to tribal savages encountering people from the real world and being forced to attempt to re-integrate into society (guess he really likes that one since he used a variant of it in Raft and again in Ring). Standard fish-out-of-water tropes abound and it's largely predictable. The story is also incredibly slow; most of the book is spent describing things and explaining how normal things work in this special setting. It's interesting and the worldbuilding is welcome, but there are so few scenes where anything is actually...happening. The society itself is pretty bland and generic, with very little to make it memorable. Additionally, the injection of science is a bit comical and hamfisted because its routinely delivered via incredibly forced set ups so that someone can do a straight-from-a-textbook infodump. I can't even say it's bad, I honestly found it hilarious every time.
Overall, despite all the science I found it to be a pretty easy read. It was interesting enough to keep me going, but too dry to be memorable. My biggest problem with it (which, to be fair, is largely due to personal bias) is the lack of cosmic significance - they mention the Xeelee and "Ur-Humans" throughout the book and constantly hint at greater mysteries, but never get into them. It wasn't until page 380 of 409 that something cosmic finally happened and even then it was over as quickly as it started. You'd think the crux of the mission to save the world in a way which also impacts the greater universal conflict would get more than a few pages, but I guess not. I suppose this book simply feels very small-scale compared to the enormity of events in Ring (but again to be fair, Flux and Raft were given all of like 2 sentence references in Ring so they can't be expected to have all that much cosmic significance).
It's worth a read if you enjoy Baxter's stuff, but it won't be your favorite.
Three books into the Xeelee series and I'm still amazed by how Stephen Baxter manages to make them work as standalones while clearly being connected to a shared timeline. It's time for Flux, one with [so far] the strongest connection to setting at large and eponymous Xeelee themselves.
Part of me almost wishes novel kept its world hidden for a while longer, but "submicroscopic human society existing in a neutron star" is a premise too crazy to dance around. Even crazier is we start off following Dura, one of the Human Beings who happen to live as so-called Upfluxers aka savages eschewing civilization after they got exiled for certain reasons. Or did they? Needless to say this will become an incredibly major part of the story as Dura, her brother Farr and jaded veteran Adda find themselves in the very center of civilization their people absconded from generations ago. Amidst tackling the unfamiliar way of life, an on-going danger in the form of Glitches seems to be reaching its peak as Dura's very world is in danger of being snuffed out. What does this have to do with ancient legends of Ur-Humans and forbidden Xeelee religion? More than you imagine.
It should come as no surprise at this point that I'm a sucker for world building, but even more so for straight up weird settings. Which makes Flux incredible because it never stops being outlandish. You have to keep in mind this is a submicroscopic world, where "air" these genetically engineered people "breathe" is wrong on both accounts and those inverted commas are there for a reason. We're talking about superfluidity, very magnetism enabling people to move around by waving their limbs, high center of civilization that is Parz being a wooden boxes suspended on a spike with surrounding ceiling-farms, etc. This is a kind of world Baxter proceeds to use real life scientific principles and terminology to explain, and despite that I had trouble visualizing just what I was reading until I went over some pages multiples times. Having someone explain all of this would be akin to robbing you of the pleasure of reading it on your own.
Interestingly enough contrasting POVs isn't something Flux does much at all - we're generally following the Upfluxers' perspectives as we have three different characters to work with. This doesn't mean we don't get hot takes on both camps, though. Dura is our strong female protagonist actually done right for a change as she has both intelligence and wisdom to temper it. She's the one who adjusts to Parz the best and sees potential merits as opposed to hunting air pigs for a living. Her younger brother Farr is ultimately just a youth torn between two ways of life. I like how he finds his center by working with a decent person who teaches him lessons about city life. Likewise, same applies to Adda who profoundly despises everything Parz stands for, is a font of ancient knowledge... and finds himself doubting whether he may have been mistaken all along. Wonders what first-hand exposure can do to a person. All in all, our trio makes friends in both high and low places, as well as step into their roles when push comes to shove. Easily my favorite chapter is when they and city leaders debate over precisely how they intend to reach the Core and contact the original Colonists as they bounce ideas. Pigs always seem to be the answer, though.
I would profusely recommend Flux, albeit with caveats that haven't changed from Raft or Timelike Infinity. Baxter is heavy on science talk, and Flux is the most out there one that I've read so far which can be overbearing if that's not up your alley.
I suppose I've lost some of my sense of wonder over the years. There was a time when I believed I might actually get offplanet during my lifetime, but that dream just slides further and further away as NASA underachieves and private industry fails to step up to the plate. That said, you can understand why I find Baxter's account of life on the surface of a neutron star less than thrilling - more of an amusing tale in the tradition of Barsoom or Gor.
Unfortunately, the tale wasn't anywhere near as exciting as Burroughs' or Norman's sagas, so I ended up a couple hundred pages into it, still bored, and had to give up. The story begins with a band of genetically engineered humans who are living under primitive conditions getting devasted by a "glitch" in the star. As they wander in search of food, they encounter more "technologically" advanced groups, and become somewhat involved in their society. There was a bit about surfing on the magnetic currents in the body of the star that could have gone somewhere, but didn't by the time I quit reading.
In that vein, I once read a short story about people kayaking in lava flows on a distant world that was pretty good. Wish I could remember where.
Only Baxter can somehow manage to write a book that’s incredibly cool and incredibly hard sci-fi while also making the very same book incredibly lame and plain silly, but that’s honesty part of why I love Baxter. There are some amazing ideas in this book, especially in the first and last hundred pages, but in the middle there’s an oddly stark clashing of imagination. We have a group of submicroscopic humans who live inside a neutron star in the deep future and fly along magnetic flux lines and smell photons, and yet most of them live in a normal-ass city doing normal-ass people things, and for some reason farting is a very important aspect of this story. Like, the whole thing is ridiculous. And yet, as always, Baxter totally won me over by the end. There is just something about the Xeelee books that capture my imagination more than anything else. They can be so stupid and yet it’s probably my favorite series of books. Anyway, I’m glad I went back and read Flux after initially skipping it due to the low reviews because at the end of the day I had a great time with this book. Nobody writes like Baxter!
Set in Baxter’s Xeelee sequence, this is the story of the microscopic inhabitants of a neutron star. For purposes explained in the story, human constructs have been designed to live within the harsh environment of a neutron star. These constructs are unaware of their purpose, but are fully aware of their origins.
The star is experiencing instability which is wreaking havoc upon a small group of inhabitants of the upper reaches of the star. These “upfluxers” refer to themselves as Human Beings and live a life floating in the Air of the upflux, attaching themselves and their meagre possessions to a flimsy net. When an instability, or Glitch, destroys the net the upfluxers are forced to seek refuge elsewhere within the star. So begins a journey of discovery for a trio of ignorant primitives.
I found this book took me a while to get into and thought about giving up on it, a first for a work of Baxter’s. I did persist however and while it doesn’t rate as a favourite, it is a worthwhile addition to Baxter’s Xeelee saga.
Apparently, I had read this book over twenty years ago, but didn't remember it at all. Now that I've read it again, I don't know how I cold have forgotten. Very good. Well written characters with their own unique arcs, plus an important tie in with the overall Xeelee series. (Which I've never read.) Interesting science as the basis for the fiction. I can't call it "hard science fiction," since it does require a significant suspension of disbelief that atomic nuclei under extremely high temperatures and pressures can assemble into structures that support life, but highly imaginative nonetheless. You don't need to have read the other Xeelee novels to appreciate this one; I haven't. However, the book's denouement feels rather rushed and incongruous with the rest of the novel, and this feeling might be reduced if you have read the other books. This has definitely made me interested in reading the others.
There's a biosphere in the upper mantle of a neutron star, floating in a superfluid between the hard crust (where a sort of inverted flora is rooted) and the star's core of compacted neutrons. Into this extraordinarily hot and dense environment, for reasons that only gradually become clear, has been placed a race of homunculi. They are about 10 microns tall, made out of tin nuclei, as close to human form as possible, but adapted to flourish inside the star. But the colony has not prospered, and we follow a small remnant struggling to survive. (Baxter seems to have a thing about small remnants struggling to survive--they appear on many of his books.) Some of the action doesn't quite make sense, even given the assumptions of the story. I don't understand how waste disposal works--it seems to sink away towards the core, but nothing else sinks. Still, the scope of imagination and scientific detail is spectacular, and typical for Baxter.
Another Xeelee sequence book full of huge and ambitious SF ideas such as what would live inside a neutron star look like and the answers to that are clever and entertaining. These big ideas alone are worth reading Baxter’s Xeelee novels for, but this book also comes closest to having believable characters whom the reader can empathise with, which isn’t a common phenomenon in science fiction in general, and rarer still in the Xeelee stories.
The big unanswered question that no one in the book even asks, or indeed is able to ask, of course is why does the neutron star city of Parz share its name with the with the Ambassador to the Qax from other short stories in the Xeelee sequence? I am probably going to have to read every other book and short story the sequence to find out aren’t I? Or maybe Baxter is just teasing us.
This has to be the craziest idea ever or a science-fiction novel: in the remote future, a group people have been miniaturized and tasked with living inside of and steering a neutron star that was fired at an immense cosmic structure created by enemies of humans.
Occupying a side-slot in the grand Xeelee history, this novel also serves to show how Baxter's style has improved since his clumsy debut, "Raft", in spite of the even harder science. The group of characters that this book is concerned with is even likeable, the plot decent, and the setting nothing short of jaw-dropping.
[having a bit of trouble shelving this book, good job goodreads]
3rd book in the Xeelee sequence, and it's getting weirder and weirder. This time it's microscopic "humans" who live inside a neutron star. Every time Baxter describes his characters it becomes clearer that they're actually something weird. They don't have eyeballs, just empty sockets. They swim through the "air" of their world, which is actually condensed neutron soup or something.
So it's a small wonder that the characters are relateable at all, and that their world is so captivating. Good job Baxter.
Flux was another great addition to the universe of the Xeelee Sequence. It was mind bending to try and picture the neutron star civilization, existing on tiny scales that the author describes, but I found it very unique and the storytelling was also excellent, making even these alien people in their exotic environment still seem relatable. I also liked the few hints scattered throughout linking it with the previous books.
A marked improvement over Raft and Timeline Infinity, I can actually see the evolution of Stephen Baxter's writing. I find it funny that this is lower rated (albeit by a tiny fraction). There's an actual story to be had here once you get past the convoluted setting. I can see the terminology being more off-putting for casual readers, so maybe that's where the lower ratings come from. Hopefully his characters and dialogue improve in time for Ring. I am hopeful
Quite unlike anything I've read before, in a good way. I must say, I prefer Baxter's grander-scaled stories, like Vacuum Diagrams and Ring. Flux is limited to a single world(ish) of human(ish) habitation, but it has enough of the strange and wonderful in it to keep the readers' attention through a story that does plod on a bit at times.
An enjoyable and imaginative story. Not just space opera, but with a proper plot, reasonably 3D characters, and speculative physics. I am a bit dubious about his description of Upfluxers as 'dependent, like children ', there is more than a hint of colonial attitudes there, but that aspect is rather mild and doesn't distract from the book as a whole.
I've been working my way through the Xeelee Sequence, and this is about where I can safely say I'm hooked. Original BIG concepts throughout this series, and hard sci-fi to the max. This tale of modified post-humans living in the mantle of a neutron star is as mindbending as it sounds. So good.
I usually enjoy Stephen Baxter's novels but this is one of his weakest. Nothing much really happens and I struggled to finish it. To be honest, as others have said you could just skip this one in the Xeelee sequence.