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Stephen Baxter: Alone in the Future April 2002

Stephen Baxter, with a mathematics degree from Cambridge and a PhD in engineering from Southampton, is a hard SF writer whose subjects cover geological change, space exploration, the destiny of life, and parallel universes. His career started with stories concerning aliens called the "Xeelee" (pronounced "Zeelee"), including Writers of the Future prize-winning "Blue Shift" and first novel Raft (1991). Among many later novels are The Time Ships (1995), an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award; novels exploring variations in the history of the space program including Voyage (1996) and Titan (1997); and a parallel universe trilogy (of sorts) exploring alternate answers to the Fermi paradox: Manifold: Time (1999), Manifold: Space (2000), and Manifold: Origin (2001). He's collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke with The Light of Other Days (2000) and has two more collaborations in work: Time's Eye and Nova. He lives in Buckinghamshire, England.

Website: The Baxterium

Photo by Beth Gwinn

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘In my books, I deal with a whole set of futures. That’s deliberate. I’d say the point of science fiction is trying to figure out the meaning of our lives. What is the meaning for humanity of this new understanding we have? Darwinism — we’ve evolved from other creatures in some way. Seeing those processes, what does that do to our self-esteem? And now we seem to be alone in the universe. How does that change the way we think about ourselves? I like to explore different angles of all these questions.

‘‘I really think we’re alone as advanced beings. Maybe life is probable but we just happen to be the first. Even that makes us special. We could conceivably screw up things for everyone else, but even then it makes us special. We’re the founders, the builders — which is a scary thought. We look for father figures in the sky, don’t we? But if we’re the father figures, we’ve got the responsibility.’’


‘‘Origin is different from the other two books in the ‘Manifold’ trio, but it all ties together. It’s a multiverse — that’s the basic conceit. You start with the characters at the same moment in time, facing three different universes in each of which Fermi’s Paradox works out differently. In the first one, Time, we are alone. In the second one, Space, we’re not alone; the aliens are out there, but they can’t reach us. The universe is a messy and dangerous place with extinction events all over — too dangerous, so that’s why they don’t get here. In the third one, Origin, it’s all spooky solutions, which ties all three books together. Everyone knew the ‘Manifold’ books were going to be a series, but in the first book the universe gets destroyed and everybody dies. So how can you have a sequel to that? But as soon as readers started into the second one, they said, ‘Ah. It’s a multiverse.’ People out there are educated in science fictional techniques. ‘Oh, it’s like a Moor­cock. And what we want to know now is how it ties together’ — which is Origin.’’


‘‘I’m blessed with being prolific. I’ve been advised to slow down a bit — produce one big fat book every two years and make it an ‘event’ for the publishing industry. But it’s just not me. I think it’s best to keep on producing and being prolific, since it’s the way my mind works best. I do like series and having a framework to work in, but don’t think I can do a standard trilogy, one big gassy novel spread over three or four years. I have too many ideas! There’s always something new. A multiverse framework gives you room to change it and muck it around.’’


‘‘I don’t really buy Vernor Vinge’s idea of Singularity. In the ’60s, it was the Space Program, big technology; then biotech and computer technology. I prefer the ‘blend’ future, where we’re all becoming empowered, not absorbed and overpowered by AI. And there are all the international connections through tech. You can’t really go to war with a pen pal, can you? I like big thinking. Think to the extreme, think it through to the end, like Larry Niven says. If everyone can teleport, what then? We may not teleport, but you’ve got the Internet and there are such things as ‘flash crowds.’ They use that term. Everybody swarms in and the whole system crashes. So that’s a prediction that came right. Back in 1981, Bill Gates saw a world in which everybody had a PC — that’s what he was aiming for. As a visionary, I think he’s been underrated.’’

The full interview and biographical profile is published in the April 2002 issue of Locus Magazine.


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