Ultima, by Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter’s Ultima is a big novel. It crosses time and space as easy as superstitious folk cross themselves. It has space faring Romans in one universe and space dwelling Incas in another. It has artificial intelligence, doppelgangers, and witty farm equipment.
What it doesn’t have is a single well-developed central character that can command the reader’s attention.
It’s worth pointing out that Ultima is a sequel to 2013’s Proxima, which I haven’t read. But I’ve read Baxter before, so I know he does hard science and characters are secondary to what he aims to achieve.
And he certainly does it here.
Ultima sees Stef Kalinski and company travel through hatches—alien-constructed gateways through time, space and dimensions—in a bid to discover where they lead to and who created them. Each time the group travels through a hatch, a new universe is revealed in which history has diverged from what the core protagonists knew, so in one, the Roman Empire persevered rather than fell and reached space, while in another, the Incas overcame the Romans and left Earth for space when the planet was no longer habitable.
Earthshine’s pursuit of the creators of the hatches, as well as the kernel technology that drives their formation, is the main driver of plot, largely because he goes to extreme world-ending lengths to force a reaction from these hidden aliens. He is far from an oppressive force, though, because he seeks answers like a scientist, rather than some power-hungry AI hell-bent on ruling the universe.
Similarly, and without reading Proxima, it’s almost as if the protagonists’ scientific curiosity drives their journey than anything else. Indeed, they often lament being stuck in alternative dimensions, even though it is apparent that the universe as they knew it was destroyed in a world war. All of the main characters exist to understand what Ultima is about—ultimately, the universe’s farthest star from Earth and the end of the local cluster of dimensions. The identity of the hatch builders is revealed early on, and they are so far removed from mankind that they play no direct role in proceedings, other than a few dreamy chapters in which they await the end of time.
Better are the Roman and Inca civilisations that have adopted kernel technology and become space faring relatively early on in their development. Baxter paints the Romans as ferocious explorers who have taken their love of marching to the stars, and the Incas as a single, highly organised machine that still practices human sacrifice. Both civilisations practice slavery, but they are both lovably horrible, rather than just horrible.
The hard science is a joy to behold—giant space cities, flying Roman towns, manipulating asteroids to prove a point—and anyone who loves their facts thoroughly researched will love Ultima. It’s just a shame that the characters have to be beholden to the science, when really it could have been the other way around.