Ultima (Stephen Baxter)

In the first novel of this two-book series of novels – Proxima, humans ventured to the planet of Per Ardua, in Proxima system, where they discovered another of ‘Hatches’ – ancient alien artefacts of unknown origin that are portals allowing their users to step across vast distances of space and time in an instance – as if one was stepping into another room. The universe suddenly opened up to humankind. Now in Ultima the consequences of this new freedom make themselves felt. Humans discover that there are minds in the universe that are billions of years older than human race who have a plan for mankind – the plan that isn't necessarily in humanity's best interest.

Ultima opens on the other side of the Per Arduan portal, with two of the main characters of the novel, Yuri Eden and Stef Kalinski, having arrived in an alternative reality where the Roman Empire has never fallen. There they are met by Centurion Quintus Fabius aboard the interstellar vessel Malleus Jesu (from Latin: 'Hammer of Jesus'), and learn that in this parallel universe the expansion of the Roman Empire has continued essentially unchallenged, kept in check only by the Xin (continuation of the Chinese Empire) in the east, and neutral Brikanti (descendants of the Celts living on the British Isles and Vikings of Scandinavia) in the north, and it is in the company of the latter, that Ultima’s other central characters – including Yuri’s daughter Beth Eden Jones and Stef’s twin sister Penny – find themselves caught.

They learn that the Romans and Xin are locked in an endless war, now, thanks to the Hatches, extended out into the solar system and beyond and super-charged by the stupendous power of the Kernels, the seemingly unlimited sources of energy left behind by the mysterious alien entities, which humans were only quick to turn into horrific weapons of mass destruction.

Stephen Baxter doesn’t make any attempt to explain how he proposes his minute ‘dreaming bugs in the rocks’ engineer highly sophisticated devices that are tapping into the energy of dying universe

Later, the disparate group of characters, amongst them Yuri’s daughter, Beth, and her daughter Mardina, sisters Stef and Penny, Centurion Quintus Fabius and a farming AI unit ColU, all aboard Malleus Jesu, leaves Earth (or Terra, as the Romans call it) for the planet Mars in the footsteps of another AI – Earthshine (a unique one amongst the three ‘Core AIs’ – because he originated as an upload of several human minds – one of them being Robert Braemann, father of Yuri Eden, whose true surname was Braemann) that has managed to be transported there and clearly has plans of his own. It turns out that Earthshine has finally determined the origin of the mysterious creators of the Kernels. These ‘deep bugs’ or ‘The Dreamers’ as he came to call them, are essentially extremophilic microorganisms that reside deep in the lithospheres of planets, spreading from one world to the other and eventually evolving into an enormous, vastly complex super-organism that transcends the universe, can live practically endlessly and therefore is also able to think over very long timescales. These ‘Dreamers’ learnt about the eventual cataclysmic end of the universe and devised a plan to sidestep it by using the actions of surface-dwelling life forms, primarily humans, by coaxing them to use the Kernels, which they conveniently provide, for building the ‘Hatches’ – thus creating new timelines ‘The Dreamers’ can live in. If, in some thus created alternative reality, users of the Kernels mismanage their enormous power and destroy themselves, or if some civilisation discovers and starts utilising the Kernels too late in its development for Deep Bugs’ liking, the ‘Hatches’ are redirected to a new alternative history, more suited for the Dreamers’ survival.

Earthshine, realising the true purpose of the ‘Hatches’, and not content with the notion of humans being mere puppets in a big scheme of the Dreamers’ machinations, decides to send a ‘message’ to them in order to gain their attention. The intended Earthshine’s ‘message’ certainly couldn’t be overlooked as it involves ramming the dwarf planet Ceres into Mars and in the process destroying one of the ancient Dreamers’ colonies, existing deep within its crust.

Ultima is a solid work of old-school science fiction, with the emphasis on ‘old-school’

When our group of travellers arrives on Mars to stop Earthshine from this, rather radical, action, they find out that it is already far too late. By now, Ceres is too far into its suicidal descend to be stopped. While Stef and Beth’s daughter Mardina, accompanied by ColU, evacuate with the Roman legionnaires under the command of Titus Valerius aboard Malleus Jesu, Beth with Earthshine enter the Hatch that appeared in the last moment before the impact, and step into the unknown. Penny, scientist to the very end, decides to stay behind to witness the impact. After Beth and Earthshine exit the Hatch at the other end, they realise that they ended up stranded on Per Ardua. In the meantime, Mardina, ColU and the Romans wind up on an Incan space outpost Yupanquisuyu in a version of reality where, following yet another spacetime shift triggered by the Ceres’s impact, the Roman Empire was defeated and the dominant world power are Incas.

Obviously, with their underground colony on Mars utterly obliterated by the intense heat caused by the impact, the Dreamers ‘have got the message’, as Per Ardua Beth and Earthshine find themselves on, is Per Ardua of the far-distant future, billions of years after ‘their’ time, just before the end of the universe, where (or should it be when?) they are much later joined by the rest of the ‘family’. The Dreamers brought them here to realise that the lifespan of our world is finite, and to witness the very moment when the ‘bubble’ of our universe collides with the boundary of the multiverse and ‘pops’ out of existence…

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Like most of Stephen Baxter’s novels, Ultima is a solid work of ‘old-school’ science fiction (with the emphasis here on ‘old-school’), which is at the same time its biggest strength and weakness. In his book, the author clearly draws many inspirations from A. C. Clarke’s works (for instance his ‘Hatches’ are very obviously based on Space Odyssey’s ‘Monoliths’), as well as from Robert Silverberg’s alternative history of Roman Empire ‘Roma Eterna’. Luckily, despite many similarities between Ultima and the former novels, Baxter stops short of plagiarism – although, and this must be said, he also doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. He also doesn’t make any attempt to explain how he proposes his minuscule ‘dreaming bugs in the rocks’ engineered the Kernels – highly sophisticated devices tapping into the energy of dying universe they use to create the space-time transcending Hatches and that trigger cosmic, reality-altering events, the so called Jonbar Hinges.

There are also some shortcomings of writing style. For instance ColU (who throughout the series evolves from a simple purpose-built farming AI unit to a patient teacher, indispensable adviser and non-judgemental friend) insists, even in casual conversations, on calling everyone by their full names (e.g. ‘Yuri Eden’, ‘Stef Kalinski’ instead of just ‘Yuri’, ‘Stef’) which, in sounding both awkwardly and unlikely, prevents the reader from full immersion in the story, and gives an impression that the author is here on a word count chase. But these are only minor points.

If you are a casual reader of science fiction and like elaborate space operas, get this book – the chances are you will thoroughly enjoy it. If, on the other hand, you are a seasoned fan of the genre, like myself, and look for a sci-fi book that is not only entertaining (which is to say Ultima certainly does a good job at), but which also surprises you with something unexpected when you thought that you've already read and seen everything, you might want to try something more original instead, such as the recent Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch space opera trilogy.