by Stephen Baxter
Review by Paul Haggerty
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0345457889
Date: 23 November, 2004 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Exultant by Stephen Baxter is the second volume in his Destiny's Children series, which is set in the far ranging Xeelee universe. This trilogy is mapped onto three points in time in a universe which Baxter has planned in intricate detail from the first microseconds after the universe began, up to the near death of the universe.
Exultant is set a mere few tens of thousands of years into the future; far enough out that it's a strange and different galaxy, and yet near enough that the fundamentals of what makes us human are still intact, though bent rather severely at times. It's a time of constant warfare against an ancient race of aliens known as the Xeelee. The war began some twenty thousand years before with humans devoting themselves to conquering the galaxy, and shows no sign of ending. All the other races in the galaxy have been destroyed, except for one: the Xeelee. This final enemy has been driven into the center of the galaxy, and each year ten billion soldiers die in the attempt to penetrate this last stronghold.
Baxter uses the latest understandings from physics (fudging only when necessary to make the plot viable) to give his people Faster-Than-Light travel and new and terrible weapons with which to fight, though each technology is still bound by the laws of the universe, laws that Baxter understands well. For example, having FTL comes with a price. Its mere existence requires the possibility of time travel. And in fact, sending information back in time has become a standard military tactic. If you know the outcome of a battle before you fight it, then you can change your tactics so that you're guaranteed victory. Unfortunately, the enemy has the same ability, and so the constant rewriting of battle plans for battles that haven't been fought, and in fact may never be fought has lead to a stalemate. The slaughter goes on at the small scale, but no major changes in the battlefront have occurred in thousands of years.
Information is not the only thing that can travel backwards. The two main characters of this book are in fact the same character. Pirius is a fighter pilot, who breaks the rules to save his crew, and in doing so, wins a major victory, and sets up the possibility for finally ending the war once and for all. The end result of the maneuver is that his ship ends up pulling into dock two years before they left. Naturally, risk taking and independent decision making are not to be allowed, and so, regardless of what he's accomplished, the older Pirius must be punished. And in a strange twist of logic, since the older one committed an offense, the younger one is destined to do it, and therefore must be punished too, as a way of removing the character flaw that would, one day, lead him to commit the act.
The two versions of Pirius are sent off for their punishments separately, but throughout the book each still manages to contribute pieces of the solution, so that by the end, when they are brought back together again, only united can they stop the war. Pirius the younger is the focus for the majority of the book. A senior commission member takes him back to old Earth as a core part of the commissarie's master plan to finally defeat the enemy, an outcome that is not entirely desired by an establishment that has survived for thousands of years solely because there is an enemy to fight. Ending the war would be bad for business.
Slowly, constantly fighting against an entrenched bureaucracy, the pieces of the plan come together. They need to be able to out think the enemy, out fly the enemy, and, most importantly of all, hide from the enemy long enough to strike the fatal blow. But even as all the pieces are assembled, it becomes more and more obvious that the true weapon they need is a tactic that has never been conceived of before: they need to understand the enemy.
Throughout the book, Baxter revisits old ground that he's covered in the various books and short stories that he's set in this universe, reintroducing the reader to such topics as the spiderwebs of Pluto, the Spline ships, Qax, Silver Ghosts, jasofts, and more. Not all actually make a physical appearance, but the effects (and scars) of their influence on humanity are still quite visible.
Exultant is a complex tale and encompasses a lot of history and plot lines. As usual, Baxter tells the story well, with fascinating side trips into the scientific theories that make the story, and in fact the universe, possible.