Humanity has always had a robust love affair with the future.
Often burnt by the past and uncertain or despairing about the present, there is something inside of us that optimistically grabs a hold of the future, embracing it like some kind of gilt-edged promised land where troubles will be foregone and hope will be fulfilled in abundance.
But as Stephen Baxter’s suitably epic novel World Engines: Destroyer sets out in enthralling and thoughtful fashion, the road that lies ahead may not always take you to the destination you’re expecting.
Reid Malenfant, a character drawn from the author’s Manifold series (1999-2001), is all too appreciative of this.
A space-shuttle pilot who “dies” in a re-entry accident in the early part of the 21st century, he is awoken in 2469 at a secret cryogenic base on the moon in answer to a plea from his also-dead wife who seems to be very much alive in this current time and reality.
He is, as anyone would be, thrown by a reality he neither expected or wanted.
“My name is Reid Malenfant.
You know me. Yeah, the guy who crashed the space shuttle. But, you know, I was only in the left-hand seat of that booster in the first place because I was always an incorrigible space cadet.
Now I want to talk about why I became a space cadet.
It started with a simple question:
Where is everybody?” (P. 3)
Marooned in history, he has two choices – refuse to go along with the almost entirely circumstances in which he finds himself or rise to the challenge of not only coming to grips with a future he never expected to encounter, but also saving the planet into the bargain.
So, no pressure, then?
In fact, there’s plenty of it, and while Baxter does present the post-climate change world of the 25th century as a somewhat bucolic and idealistic place where humanity has learnt its lesson and the Earth is being allowed to re-balance its almost mortally damaged ecosystem while taking confident steps forward to a technologically advanced and eco-sensitive future, all is not perfect in the new world of independent AIs and food replicators.
For one thing, and this matters greatly to an old space dog like Malenfant who fought long and hard to realise to realise his NASA dream, humanity has retreated from the stars.
Its old bases on the moon and a number of planets of the Terran solar system have been abandoned, left to the planetary AIs created to operate them and to the ecosystems that were found to be far more fecund than previously thought (and thus more easily damaged by humanity’s manifest destiny tendencies).
The only opera space ships that remain are in an air and space museum in the newly-created, carbon-drawing down Sahara Forest and in orbit, dusty assets that suddenly become crucial when Malenfant, who seems to have a penchant for pissing off those who could help him – he is both a likeable and thoroughly unlikeable character at once; so very human, then – discovers that humanity has a sword pointed at its collective throat.
This figurative swords comes in the form of a rogue planet which, unless its course is altered, is due to collide with Neptune in just under a thousand years, unleashing a tsunami of debris so destructive that life on Earth will end.
One thousand years may sound like a ridiculous amount of time away but the looming end of humanity is having a corrosive effect on society and unable to help himself, Malenfant joins up with an unlikely team to try and thwart an all-but-predestined event.
At this point, you might conclude that World Engines: Destroyer is a big, dumb piece of sci-fi blockbuster fun which would be entirely fine since those kinds of stories are pure popcorn, diversionary perfection if done well.
And World Engines: Destroyer is done very well.
“He got up, cautious in the low gravity, walked around, looked at the image. Persephone: it looked a little like Earth in deep-freeze, he thought. He saw continents, mountain ranges tipped with ice, broader frozen plains that might have been oceans. In one place volcanoes glowered, a whole province glowing lava red.
Yes. In fact a little larger than Earth.
‘But out in the cold and dark. What am I looking for?'” (P. 261)
But being a Stephen Baxter novel, World Engines: Destroyer is imbued with a deep-seated, richly-realised intelligence that never feels ponderous or over-thought because it is allied with an emotional intelligence that never loses sight of the raw and affecting humanity at the heart of the story.
A story, which by the way, comes with an entirely unexpected ending which elevates a richly-told story beyond simply a barnstorming epic adventure into something although more complex and yet wholly and pleasingly accessible.
This is sci-fi with all the narrative bells and whistles that always remembers the characters at its heart and which for all its bristling intelligence and willingness to deep dive into big ideas, never once gets mired staring into its own brilliance.
The end result is a gripping story, replete with people who are flawed and brilliant and never ever less than compelling, which propels itself along through history and time and destiny with confidence and bravado while staying very humanly authentic and emotionally real, an all-in reminder that where we think we are heading is not always where we end up, and we might, just might, be all the richer for it.
Or if not, have a damn fine time trying to come to grips with our eventual destination.