Lunar New Year Reads, Book #32: Manifold: Origin by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter is one of those writers whose work I don’t actually know very well, but what I know of, I enjoy immensely. This is the fourth novel written or co-written by him that I have read, and the conclusion to a series I’ve downright admired, the Manifold Series.

Manifold is a series of books dealing with different answers to the Fermi Paradox, which is based upon this question: if indeed the requisite materials and conditions for life as, indeed, as common as they seem to be in our universe, why do we not see evidence of life everywhere we look in space? To date, we have seen absolutely nothing that suggests there is life anywhere in our universe except on Earth; and as for sentient, intelligent life, our closest relatives seem to be chimpanzees and dolphins. Is this truly the case, and if so, why?

Of course, there are some underlying assumptions to the question. There is the assumption that inteligent beings will generally be technology-using beings; there is the assumption that they will find it necessary or desirable to leave their home planets to ensure their long-term survival as a species; it assumes that they would develop technologies like stellar engineering and space-flight. In other words, it assumes that other life (or at least some of it) in the universe would, in certain respects, resemble us. I trust the error in this thinking is, at least for my readers, obvious.

Stephen Baxter Book Cover for Manifold: OriginBaxter’s books, however, do not respond to this with merely the simple response to these assumptions. Rather, they take on threevery basic premises: in Manifold: Time, the assumption is that, indeed, there is no other life in the Universe. We are indeed alone on Earth, and the best we can do is spread out our species and try to survive as long and as well as we can. In other words, THEY’RE NOT OUT THERE. In Manifold: Space, the assumption is that space is teeming with alien life, but they just haven’t arrived yet… which turns out to be something commanding gratitude. In other words, THEY’RE JUST NOT HERE YET. And finally, there is Manifold: Origin.

Origin is unlike the previous two books in several ways. First, the novel takes on a very short-term scale of time. Unlike Space and Time, the timescale of Origin is comparable to what you would find in any novel, or at least the timescale of the action of the novel is — reference to actions beyond the timescale are important, but we don’t see characters episodically tripping through unimaginable gulfs of time. Rather, we see a strange, mysterious enigma similar to what showed up in the previous two novels: a kind of gate appearing over Africa, a blue portal to some unknown locale. Except that the unknown locale is somewhat guessable: the moon is replaced, at the moment of the portal’s appearance, by an enigmatic, bizarre Red Moon that wrecks the earth’s tides and puzzles humanity.

The aliens in Space are wonderfully written, quite alien in some ways, but the hominids in Origin are, to my mind, more profound. (Early hominids seem to be a major interest for Baxter; they show up not only in Origin, but also in Space and, I believe, in the book he co-wrote with Arthur C. Clarke called The Light of Other Days.) The varieties of hominids in Origin are all so diverse that each subspecies seems to make up a kind of “character” on its own. Each of them coexist with other inmates of the Red Moon, including homo sapiens from another Earth and a horrifying Puritanical-like community from an alternate Earth who seek to enslave the planet.

There are a few fascinating things to observe about all of this somewhat unbelievable material. For one, there is the rather sensible observation that early hominids were very likely cognitively different from us, which is not to say “stupider” than us, but mentally radically different. Baxter’s treatment of the Neadertal mind is especially fascinating, even better than his treatment of the Daemons, a group of highly evolved gorilla-like hominids from an alternate earth, beings with incredibly advanced technology and absolutely no drive for colonization, a deep-seated (instinctual and cultural) passion for the balance of ecology, and so forth. In any case, these characters serve to question some of our basic assumptions about what it means to be human. The characters’ discovery of the human/hominid origins, their final understanding of what their Descendants/Ancestors actually were/will be — something as radically different from humans as humans are from apes — and the wonderful putting-in-place of humans faced with the (intellectually and technologically, but not inherently) superior hominids the Daemons, all drive an interesting observation home, about where our fantasies of aliens and monsters may truly come from.

After all, the root of the Fermi Paradox is the confrontation we find with our aloneness: we wonder why we are alone on earth, the only sentient hominids to walk the planet. But as we dig deeper into history, we find that we were not in fact always alone. Early humans coexisted with other hominid species, and certainly interacted with them. Which is to say that we competed with them, and probably fought with them. We may have in places coexisted with them in peace and cooperative harmony. On the other hand, we may have enslaved them, put them in harems, or murdered them, something which wouldn’t be too surprising given the way we humans behave even today. The fact that all this would have come long before the advent of what we acknowledge as history does not mean we have forgotten it: rather, our fascinating with intelligent nonhumans — elves, spirits of nature, “wee folk”, and other quasi-human beings is probably remnants of vestigal memories of this long, uneasy coexistence. Such memories may permeate deep throughout our cultures, and if they do, they would inform our fantasies, our imaginings: when we look into the eyes of the alien in a movie, or track the triumphs of elves or dwarves in fantasy stories, or think of Esau or of Enkidu, these half-memories of other hominids are probably evoked, and I think this is why such stories make any sense at all to us, but also why they have such an effect on us.

It is for this reason that I found Baxter’s exploration of all of the vastly different kinds of hominids on his Red Earth so fascinating and rewarding a read. I wish I were the one who had stumbled upon this very sensible correlation between human prehistory and human dreaming. In any case, Baxter does the topic justice without even directly addressing the notion. Manifold: Origin is a worthy and rewarding conclusion to the Manifold series, and while I plan to take a break from Baxter, I am also more confident that I will enjoy others of his books now, whenever I finally get around to them.

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