This is one slots in the bookshelf under Speculative Fiction with Ridiculously Big Numbers (subsection: Epic). And a book with numbers as big as this can’t really be told as a straight novel, so Baxter has written two stories for the price of one.
The first story features John Hackett, an emotionally-troubled astronaut tasked with exploring the Andromeda Galaxy. For him, it’ll be a short hop: about thirty years or so, which he’ll spend asleep, travelling in a spaceship the size of Jupiter. But due to time dilation, by the time he returns to Earth, millions of years will have passed.
The second thread was a little more intriguing: Mela is a young woman growing up on an Earth-like planet that is slowly dissolving. As the land disappears, the one hundred million inhabitants are forced to travel northward to wait for the end of everything.
For me, this was sci-fi at its best; the sheer scale of it gave me a headache. it spans over a hundred trillion years. Talk about ambitious!
Yet, despite the timeline, this is an intensely personal story revolving around two people separated by aeons. Hackett’s story was all about the science. We’ve got spaceships the size of planets, star-sized engineering projects, and people, through various means, living for billions of years. The technology is scary, the science behind is explained in realistic detail. (Can’t tell you if it would work or not, which I suppose is why it’s called Speculative Fiction). Hackett’s story is dialogue, with very little else happening aside from him waking up and going to sleep. The world is brought to life through his conversations with people who slip in and out of his life over his trillion-year existence. It reminded me a lot of Sleeping Giants, though this was dialogue-heavy prose, rather than a series of conversation transcripts.
And then there was Mela’s story: a tale of family, tragedy and desperation told in a tersely emotional prose. They say that good sci-if has to be relatable to the here and now, otherwise the story is too detached from the reader. This is where the book really wins for me. As the population of the doomed planet migrates northward, we’re told of a refugee crisis that mirrors the same horrors and despair and hopeleness that we see now in countries suffering the aftershocks of our neglect of the climate. Distilled down to a single woman’s viewpoint, the life of a refugee crisis becomes much personal, much more real. From this alone, this book is something of a triumph. The hundred trillion year timeline is just the icing on the cake.
Definitely one to read if you like hard science-fiction with a capital H.