Gollancz | 2017 (15 June) | 346p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 3646 and mankind, and with it peace, has settled across the solar system. Earth has recovered from some of the environmental disasters of the past while the occupation of Mars, Mercury and other planets and moons has allowed humanity to harvest resources for a prosperous distant future. The Poole family has engineered some of Earth’s greatest technological achievements for centuries and Michael, its latest heir, is about to display arguably their greatest achievement yet – wormhole technology. But as the wormhole opens for the first time an object emerges from it – an immense alien vessel, the exact size and shape of the wormhole, and it brings with it a message. It tells of a future in which Michael Poole will be regarded as a prophet and, at the centre of the Galaxy, there will be an immense statue raised to Poole by a species that waged war against humans for thousands of years.
The Xeelee have arrived in the solar system using the wormholes created by Michael Poole. Their progress is slow and their intentions unknown but, when they arrive at Mercury and incredibly, amazingly extract from the planet a ‘cache’ or body that crashed onto the planet billions of years ago, it becomes clear that their intentions are not kind. It’s up to Michael Poole and his colleagues to try and understand their fixation on him as a person while offering resistance to an onslaught that has the potential to devastate the solar system once and for all.
In Vengeance, Stephen Baxter returns to his Xeelee universe and in it he gives the Xeelee the chance to wipe out the human that has caused their species so much harm over the millennia. I should say at this point that I’ve yet to read the Xeelee novels and I did wonder, heading into Vengeance, if I would be able to follow its story without having knowledge of what has come before and after. But Stephen Baxter is such a great writer, who always makes me step back and gasp in amazement at the universes that he creates, that I thought I’d give Vengeance a go. I’m so glad I did. And I’m equally pleased that I have the Xeelee novels ready to go on my reading pile. After this, I don’t want to miss them.
It’s true, not having read the other novels, that I have no background context for the characters (human or alien) that fill this novel. Nevertheless, I felt immediately invested in them, particularly Michael and his colleague in danger, Nicola. With Michael’s parents (and Nicola’s mother) playing a significant part in the events of Vengeance, it was very easy for me to become caught up in the family tensions that have such repercussions for the whole of mankind. Michael and his powerful father Harry are regarded as both saviours and devils. Michael has the weight of the world on his shoulders while expecting constantly to disappoint the world he wants to save.
This is a future world in which people have been genetically enhanced and artificial intelligences have equality and status. People can move around ‘virtually’ and some, such as Michael’s mother, have no choice but to do so. I really enjoyed the relationship between Michael and his mother, Muriel, but it’s easy to see why Michael should be drawn to his co-pilot Nicola, another of the novel’s exceptionally strong characters.
Although I have yet to discover the wider picture of the Xeelee universe, there is so much to enjoy here. Fundamentally, Vengeance is a first contact novel, describing the story of an alien attack on the solar system. It is both ingenious and utterly horrifying as well as being completely irresistible. I loved the premise and it delivered perfectly. The drama is intense, the science is fascinating and the wonder is awe-inspiring. The Xeelee species is enigmatic entirely. And its depiction here made me desperate to read the original novels to discover more of the truth.
The focus here is very much on a small group of people. The annihilation of so much life in the solar system is observed in horror rather than experienced ‘on the streets’. It is so well done. Stephen Baxter is such a brilliant writer of hard science fiction. He also captures ideas and makes them feel real and dazzling. There is plenty to enjoy in Vengeance and its forthcoming sequel if you haven’t read the Xeelee novels but I think after reading it you’ll not want to resist the pull of those earlier novels. For that, I’m so grateful to Vengeance which is, from start to finish, a wonderful and always thrilling novel about humanity’s ability to face the unknown and the harmful while still wishing to explore his or her potential and the reaches of space.