Manifold: Origin, Undersea City

Manifold: Origin by Stephen Baxter involves the Fermi paradox - if the universe is so big and so old and life evolves spontaneously, then where are all the aliens? Space ought to be as overpopulated as India by now.

I didn’t say that the novel addresses the Fermi paradox; it rather takes it as given that man is depressingly alone in the universe, then connects those lonely Homo sapiens across the quantum multiverse. We’re alone in all those universes, but we’re not always the same. Sometimes we’re furry geniuses, and other times we’re still swinging with the apes.

The variety of primates is interesting, although every one of them, from the apes to the humans to the hyperintelligent denizens of a moonless Earth, seems more animal than angel. My concern for the endangered heroes was not what it could have been, had they been more sympathetic characters.

I hear the previous volumes, Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space, were better. I may give one of them a shot.

Undersea City is a juvenile by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson that proves I’m still in my used-pulp phase. Like “Manifold”, “Undersea” is a title theme that unifies this moldy old volume with the lost works Undersea Quest and Undersea Fleet.

“Juvenile,” for your information, is a trade term for what I suppose is now called young adult fiction. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, children’s books are books starring children, and their reading level is the age of the hero. The hero of Undersea City, whose name I’ve already forgotten, finds himself in special cadet training at an earthquake-prone undersea city. Of course, a series of earthquakes begins and our hero finds friends and relations acting suspiciously. There’s a cadet snob, a gruff superior officer, and a city council who refuse to evacuate before the Big Underwater One hits the city. It all works out in the end.

Great literature it’s not. The only interesting part of the story for me was the authors’ dated insistence that computers were not up to the task of predicting earthquakes. Instead, cadets with a few weeks’ training checked the seismograph readings and did their calculations by hand, and almost always agreed on where, when, and what force the quake would be. It was never quite clear what they’re doing that a computer couldn’t, in theory, reproduce, even back in 1958 when the book was written.

I suppose that’s a danger of the genre. Fantasy keeps, but hard sci-fi goes bad.

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