My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I remember in my review of Proxima being wrong-footed by the first instalment, which I thought was a generation starship story. Instead Baxter dealt rather perfunctorily with the journey to Per Adua around Poxima Centauri, where the hapless travellers find a mysterious hatch. So much for the rigours of inter-galactic travel, made mockingly redundant by a blunt deus ex machina.
Ultima picks up at the exact moment when the aptly-named Yuri Eden steps through the aforesaid hatch. Exactly where (perhaps more importantly, when) he ends up is the chief subject matter, and delight, of the second volume. I hesitate to call it the concluding instalment, given the anticipated cliff-hanger ending.
Baxter is most adept at a rather old-fashioned kind of ‘what if?’ SF, which has a distinguished lineage from Olaf Stapledon to Arthur C. Clarke. However, he leavens his sense-of-wonder with cutting-edge scientific speculation and a kind of existentialist philosophy that ponders such vast questions as the end of space and time.
One of the chief criticisms of this kind of intellectual SF has always been that it pays short shrift to characterisation. Stock characters are often clumsily deployed as opposing spectrums of various dialectic positions, given to info-dumping a lot of arcane terminology as opposed to advancing any sense of plot or narrative.
What Baxter achieves with Ultima is a perfect synthesis of sense-of-wonder and a range of believable characters that grow in unexpected ways (and which astonish the reader with their selflessness, endurance and curiosity towards the end, which here is the End Time, when our universe bumps against the wall of another structure in the Multiverse, resulting in an ambiguous ‘wall of light’).
‘Big Concept’ Baxter is unique in the genre in the breadth and depth of his scientific speculation, always linked to or extrapolated from current theory and thinking, as testified to by generous Afterwords to his books, which are detailed enough to include citations of current academic papers.
There are truly jaw-dropping moments in Ultima. Rather than overwhelm the reader, however, Baxter carefully ratchets up the sense-of-wonder to what one suspects will be a kind of 2001 ending …
That the true ending focuses on a disparate bunch of characters – displaced people from Roman and Incan interstellar empires, a couple of AIs and stragglers from Earth – huddling together at the end of the universe on the alien planet of Ultima, is fitting and bittersweet, giving a very human face to some highly daunting astrophysical speculation.
This is one of the best books that Baxter has written to date, cleverly conflating some of his most beloved ideas, from deep time to alternate histories. Not to mention the immutability of the human spirit.
Bold, brave and exciting, this is world-building that is intellectually vigorous and supple, without forgetting to be deeply humane. A magnificent, thrilling achievement that is testament to Baxter’s reputation as one of the best SF writers in this world. Or any other.