Book Review: Galaxias by Stephen Baxter

Review by Duncan Lunan, first published in ParSec #3, April 2022.

Stephen Baxter, “Galaxias”, hbk, 112 pp. + 12, £20.00, Gollancz, 2021.

On August 25th Orkney News published an article, ‘A Watery World Discovered’, about an announcement by an international team headed by Charles Cadieux, a Ph.D. student at the Université de Montréal and member of the Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx).  Their research indicates that TOI-1452 b, an exoplanet orbiting one of two small stars in a binary system, may be the first definite discovery of a ‘waterworld’, a planet with so much more water than Earth that its surface must be completely covered by ocean, possibly to great depth.  The designation ‘TOI’ stands for TESS Object of Interest, as highlighted by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.  TOI-1452 circles a star in the constellation Draco, about 100 light-years from Earth, with an orbital period of only 11 Earth days.  Nevertheless it lies within the band around the star where temperatures would allow earthlike conditions, particularly liquid water, which shows what a small star it is compared to the Sun.  The planet is slightly larger than Earth, and from the amount of light it blocks as it crosses the face of the star, its diameter and density can be calculated.  It’s so much lower than Earth’s that although it must contain rock and possibly metal, most of its composition must be water.

Most previous candidates for waterworlds have been much larger ‘super-earths’ or ‘mini-Neptunes’, so much more massive that the ‘waterworld’ status was only a possibility.  TOI-1452 b is so much smaller that the identification is much more likely, if not certain.  The water may extend to great depths, like the ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa.  Compression in its depths may be sufficient for the formation of alternative forms of water and ice, an idea which has been around in physics for decades and is now definitely back in fashion.  Perhaps such an ocean could harbour forms of life very different from those we know;  and that’s the basis of a recent novel by Stephen Baxter, one of the UK’s top science fiction writers.

There have been only three times when an SF novel has caused me to exclaim aloud in astonishment.  One was a Bob Shaw novel, and I grieve to say that I no longer know which one.  Another was The Astrologer by John Cameron  (1972);  and the first was the moment in October the First Is Too Late, by Fred Hoyle  (1966), when it’s discovered that someone is harnessing the output of the Sun to use it as a data transmitter.  As a result the initial shock of Galaxias is muted – especially because the blurb and the press release warn us beforehand.

In the event which becomes known as ‘The Blink’, on 5th– 6th January 2057, the Sun disappears.  It’s not eclipsed or otherwise obscured – stars can be seen where it was, and the disappearance of its gravity field is quickly noticed.  Tides are disrupted.  And although it comes back after 24 hours, first as a brilliant star in the Kuiper Belt and then in its former place, the Earth’s orbit has altered after a day of moving in a straight line.  So has the Moon’s, and its rotation is no longer locked to the Earth.  There are big atmospheric disturbances and volcanic outbreaks to come, and the decision not to allow evacuation of Naples seems hard to justify, harder still to implement.  What persuades the carabinieri and military to stay at the roadblocks when they know a pyroclastic flow is coming in ‘Pompeii 2’?

Meanwhile, the astronauts in transit back to Earth from Mars are in a lot of trouble.  I’m a member of a Zoom discussion group including Martyn J. Fogg, whose work is mentioned both in the book and in the Afterword, and just what I’ve mentioned so far led to an hour of in-depth discussion, which continued by email.  The orbital dynamics are correct, though other details of the space mission seem less plausible.  The solar-powered manned mission has battery power for only 8 hours, although after Apollo 13, the Apollo Command & Service Module was refitted with enough batteries to take it to the Moon and back in the event of a similar emergency.  Eight hours would give the crew very little time to diagnose a problem with solar power and rectify it, for instance if there was a loss of attitude control, as happened on Mir more than once.  And the solar flare ‘storm cellar’ to which the crew retreat has an automatically closing door with no manual release, inside or not, so when one of them is locked out during final checks, nothing can be done for him.  After the Apollo 1 fire, I can’t see astronauts willingly putting themselves behind a self-locking door in any circumstances.

These are minor considerations compared to the big issues, and  (spoiler warning!!!)  those can’t be discussed without giving away what they are.  Remarkably quickly, it comes to be accepted, at least by governments and their advisors, that the Blink is the work of a very powerful extraterrestrial intelligence, on at least a Kardashev III scale, able to harness the energy resources of the Galaxy – hence the name assigned to it.  Whatever it is, it’s sending us a message that it’s unhappy with our activities, specifically our intended spread into space.  Only 25 years from now, it seems to me that large parts of the human race would insist that this is the will of God and we must comply with it.  In particular, the Presidents of the fragmented USA would surely come under huge pressures to do so, rather than accepting the British and Chinese consensus that we must defy it.  The ‘proof’ that it’s not the work of God is that although the teleportation was instantaneous, its effects propagated at the speed of light, showing that whatever caused the Blink is generally bound by the known physical laws of the Universe.  The Astronomer-Royal provocatively terms the God hypothesis ‘Puny Jehovah’, and gains a following who wear the slogan on T-shirts, but having just reread The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, it strikes me that even in 25 years’ time that would be a pretty risky thing to to.

The consensus, remarkably swiftly reached, is that ‘Galaxias’ is a very old singleton intelligence which emerged early in the history of the Galactic Disc, 10 billion years ago, within a waterworld of the type which many earthlike worlds and ‘super-earths’ may be.  Encompassing and then learning to utilise the properties of other forms of water and ice, which may well exist at depths of 100 miles or more within such waterworlds, it spreads itself by natural or directed panspermia across the Milky Way, while still retaining a unitary consciousness.  It becomes aware that rock-and-metal earthsized worlds like ours can evolve a different type of spacefaring consciousness. After a few disastrous instances where such entities ruined nearby solar systems  (in ‘the lightspeed cage’, the uncontrolled spread and collapse of what Freeman Dyson called ‘a purposeless technological cancer’), Galaxias decides to suppress spacefaring civilisations like ours to stop it from happening again.

Eyeball water world, artist’s concept 2018, only possible within a narrow range of temperatures.

It’s not in the book, but one of the current models for a super-earth waterworld is an ‘eyeball’, a planet covered with ice except for a clear, circular area of ocean at the sub-solar point.  I find it impossible not to imagine the origin of Galaxias as a similarly watchful, somewhat sinister globe – especially as Galaxias has a unit of polywater and complex organic compounds on a mound in Sinus Medii, at the centre of the Moon’s Nearside, where it keeps a constant watch on Earth and is known initially as ‘the Eyeball’, later as ‘the lurker’.  I find it a bit harder to believe that it was discovered by Surveyor 6, which landed nearby in 1967, and has been kept quiet all this time;  and harder to credit that we can deduce so much about Galaxias from its existence, the Blink event, and the dropping of screens which reveal that almost all the nearby stars have earthlike planets, though nobody has ever visited us.  It’s hardest of all to believe that we already have prototype starships using dark matter sails and zero point energy, by 2058;  and that the Chinese are ready to embark on a nanotech/von Neumann programme which will create a ‘Fogg engine’, to move the Solar System out of the galactic disc and show Galaxias that we are no threat to it.  At a first estimate, the programme will take 100 million years, which is long-term planning even by Chinese standards, but the hope is that we’ll get better and faster at it as we go.

At the end of the Zoom discussion with Martyn Fogg and others on the orbital dynamics, I was asked, ‘But it is a good story?’  The answer is yes – it starts with the sudden onset of darkness, and continues as a page-turner, with the scale of events and ideas getting ever bigger, though it’s all seen through the eyes of a small group of people, friends at university and keeping in close touch throughout – at least until one of them destroys the lurker, in revenge for the loss of her family in ‘Pompeii 2’.  That wasn’t a good idea, it turns out when the Chinese plan is revealed, because it relies on having it happen in plain sight of Galaxias.  There are other contact points, probably, starting with the prototype starship which is now near enough to the Galaxias machines in the Kuiper Belt to signal to them.  But apparently that doesn’t go well, at least at first, because there’s a strong implication at the end of the main text that the starship doesn’t come back.

Nevertheless, in an appendix set 200 million years later, humanity’s heirs  (‘not even any evolutionary descent from the human’), have colonised the globular cluster we call Messier 12, remembered their expulsion from the Milky Way, and decided to do something about it.  That will end in tears before bedtime, it’s made clear.

If Galaxias survives the confrontation, though, either victoriously or by some kind of accommodation with those beings ‘whose remotest ancestry had originated on Earth’, then on the 10-billion year timescale of Galaxias the 500-million-year human engagement, from the Blink to the final outcome, is only an episode – comparable, say, to the Black Death in the history of post-Roman Britain, serious but not ultimately devastating.  In Galaxias time, bigger issues than the threat from us are coming.  I feel I should apologise if I’m anticipating a sequel which Stephen Baxter has already planned, but that’s what you get for writing such a thought-provoking book.

3.75 billion years from now, about a third of the time for which Galaxias has already ruled, the fringes of the Milky Way will begin to collide with those of M31, the Great Galaxy in Andromeda and the closest spiral to us.  Some scientists believe that the outermost gas halos of the two spirals are already beginning to interact.  Both spirals will be thrown into chaos, with an immense burst of star formation, before settling in 3.5 more billion years into an immense elliptical galaxy which currently has the unlovely name of ‘Milkomeda’.  It could provide Galaxias, or its eventual merger with our descendants, with huge new realms to occupy.  But what if the Andromeda galaxy already hosts a bigger, older counterpart?  Will there be a new accommodation, or a ‘War of the Identities’ which leaves Milkomeda in ruins, like the shattered Galaxy in Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars?

Over to you, Stephen…

Stephen Baxter, “Galaxias”, hbk, 112 pp. + 12, £20.00, Gollancz, 2021

Paperback £10.99