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29 July 2004




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Stephen Baxter: The Cusp of Transcendence August 2004

Stephen Baxter earned degrees in mathematics and engineering, and worked as a teacher and engineer, before becoming a full-time writer in 1995. His early stories featured his "Xeelee" aliens, including first published story "The Xeelee Flower" (1987) and first novel Raft (1991).

Baxter writes primarily hard SF on a variety of themes, including geological change, space exploration, the destiny of life, and parallel universes. Early works include Xeelee fixup collection Vacuum Diagrams (1997), winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and The Time Ships (1995), an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the British SF Association Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award.

Among many other works are alternate-history space program novels Voyage (1996),
Photo by Charles N. Brown

The Baxterium
Titan (1997), and Moonseed (1998); parallel universe trilogy Manifold: Time (1999), Manifold: Space (2000) and Manifold: Origin (2001); and Xeelee-related "Destiny's Children" series beginning in 2003 with Coalescent, to be followed by Exultant (2004) and Transcendent. Baxter is also a prolific writer of short fiction and essays, with collections including Traces (1998), Phase Space (2002), essay collections Deep Future and Omegatropic (both 2001), and mixed fiction/nonfiction collection The Hunters of Pangaea (2004). Recently he has collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke with The Light of Other Days (2000) and Time's Eye (2004), first in the "A Time Odyssey" series. He currently lives in Northumberland, England with his wife, Sandra Shepherd.

Excerpts from the interview:

“The book I'm working on now is called Transcendent. I've turned in Exultant, second in the 'Destiny's Children' series, about the war in the center of the galaxy hinted at in the first book, Coalescent.

“My galaxy is a crowded place. I've got exotic life forms from different physical generations since the formation of the universe, all hanging around now and conflicting and combining in symbiosis in various ways.

“This new series is set in my Xeelee universe. The earlier Xeelee books were really about the beginning and end of the story of that universe. We move out from the planet, come in contact with the Xeelee and other species, and then fast-forward to the end, where we've been through a million-year war with the Xeelee and we're defeated. The new books are about that million-year war.”


“I'm interested in the cusp of transcendence, where we're about to shed our humanity. I'm thinking of stories like 'Eyes Do More Than See' by Asimov, where the superbeings of the far future have a sense of loss of humanity, and one tries to construct a human head out of bits of clay, which doesn't seem fully human until they pour water on it and it appears to cry.... In my book we're either going to win by becoming transcendent, or we'll lose to the Xeelee and be crushed, but either way we won't be human any more, and we're looking back to the past, and we're consumed by regret.”


“My books are usually big novels to write, with lots happening on multiple scales. This is one of the joys of writing science fiction. A novel is basically a psychological study of human characters, to see inside the character's head in a way you can't do in drama. With science fiction, where you're exploring ideas as much as characters, you have to push the form of the novel to its limits.”


“I've got worries about the EU, particularly the 'democratic deficit,' as they call it. It's not as accountable as it should be. But just the fact that we've stopped wars in Europe, and now we're raising levels of education and prosperity and so on, that's a good thing. Maybe Europe is a model for the future, for how nation states can work together while keeping national traditions and without any dilution of culture.

“As regards the space program, though, with any 30-year plan you're instantly skeptical. It's a human generation, beyond what you can feasibly control.

“Of course on longer timescales you can sustain coherent projects of a certain kind. You can think of America as a project, in a way. The Founding Fathers could never have foreseen the Internet and e-commerce, all the things that make up the details of life nowadays in America. But America as a sort of project, with a set of values and a central structure, is still going after two centuries. Other examples might be the British Empire, or the Industrial Revolution –- open-ended but with a coherent set of values and frameworks.

“But on longer timescales, after a thousand or two thousand years, everything changes -- languages, ethnic identities, everything. Pretty much all that survives on that timescale is religion.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the August 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

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