Every so often, and when I say often I mean rather rarely, a book comes along that grabs your imagination, wrings out your heart, wrestles with your brain and just won’t let go. For me, last year, it was Proxima by Stephen Baxter. Without doubt, Proxima was my favourite book of 2013, despite the heated competition. On finishing it, a state that had me in a muddy pool of tears, I discovered that there was to be a follow up, just the one, and it would be called Ultima. A year and two months have gone by and I’ve not been patient but today (27 November) Ultima is published. Fortunately, I managed to get my greedy mitts on an early copy last week in the local bookshop. Everything was dropped, including food consumption, and I barely did anything else last weekend except lap it up. It wasn’t all bluebells and butterflies, there were challenges too. But before you progress further be aware that Ultima is a sequel to Proxima, it relies on you knowing what happened before and the review will make a similar assumption. Please don’t tread further if you don’t want to know.
The alien hatches discovered on Mercury and Proxima Centauri, or Per Ardua as its marooned colonists first named it, have opened up an unknowable number of unpredictable possibilities to those brave or foolish enough to open them. The act of opening them creates changes even for those who don’t make the crossing, as Stef Kalinski knows better than anyone. As a result of such an act, she now has a twin, Penny, a sister who shouldn’t exist but now somehow always did. As Ultima begins, Yuri Eden, our brave first explorer of Proxima, has crossed with Stef and their resourceful robot ColU into another world, one that is ruled by a Roman Empire that never fell but instead slowly conquered the planet Terra before reaching the stars where it followed its inexplicable instinct to create more hatches. In a different time period (just by a few years), our other group comprising Penny, Yuri’s daughter Beth and Lex, a military commander, as well as Earthshine, an astonishingly powerful and curious AI, also find themselves shifted through space due to a cataclysmic event. They too find themselves in Roman space.
But this is just the beginning. Time passes slowly, lives change and adapt, new characters are born, others must die. The search for the creators of the hatches, the reason for their existence and their propagation through the Galaxy, drives everything. Earthshine in particular is determined to hunt the truth, to communicate with these creators or dreamers and so he heads to Mars, the source of more hatches in this different universe. And when these hatches are triggered, then something incredible and enormous happens. Something that sets in progress new journeys and discoveries, new worlds and habitats to explore, wonders and terrors to encounter, lives to be found and lost, all leading, so Earthshine believes, to Ultima.
Ultima is an incredible novel, richly layered and perplexing, giving and troubling. The trouble lies in the first third. Proxima launched the reader into the heart of the matter from the very first page. Ultima prefers to take its time. I found the pages set on the Roman home world of Terra strangely uninvolving and rather worrying for it. There were intriguing glimpses into the society with its peculiar mix of ancient and futuristic, especially its attitudes towards marriage and children, but there were few surprises, no moments of wonder and no big picture. But from the moment that our characters left this world and indeed this universe thanks to more hatches and cataclysmic disasters, Ultima burst into life and for the remaining two thirds of its journey it never lost sight of its goal, driving us on through wonder upon wonder until a conclusion is reached that is quite simply breathtaking and every bit as mindblowing and perfect as the best of Proxima.
In science fiction such as this I want to be awestruck with wonder and Stephen Baxter supplies this by the page once we’ve moved on from the first third. We are taken to new extraordinary habits, beautifully painted – I don’t want to say anything about these, you must experience it all yourself. Characters we knew little now come into their own and rival those we already cared for. The backstories these characters are given are strangely powerful as we encounter new ways of life based on twisted traditions. Time has moved on substantially since the days of Proxima but I loved where it takes us. There are so many little adventures, so big for those taking part, all forming a crucial part of a huge bigger picture that encompasses the meaning and future of the entire universe. These are big ideas, wonderfully wrought. A fabulous mix of large and small, universes and individual lives.
This is a series that demands answers, for us just as much as for the characters, and Stephen Baxter rewards us. I was completely satisfied and overwhelmed. It is a pity that readers might be dismayed or even lost as a result of the opening third but if ever there’s a need for patience and perseverance it’s here. The big challenge for Ultima is the inevitable comparison with Proxima. As a whole, Ultima doesn’t match the achievement of Proxima, but its final act does, I think, surpass it.
Stephen Baxter is an extraordinary writer. He’s held me spellbound for years, writing on his own and with Terry Pratchett. Baxter’s Flood and Ark continue to be among my most favourite novels. Two more have now joined them.