|summary||The second book of the Destiny's Children novels|
Exultant is not a direct sequel to Coalescent, in that it doesn't pick up the story of George Poole and continue it. The concept of coalescence plays little part in this new novel -- so anyone expecting more of the same may be disappointed, but not for long. Once you start reading Exultant, it quickly becomes clear that the Destiny's Children novels are part of the Xeelee sequence (something that was not obvious in the first novel). The Xeelee sequence is a future history, mapped out by Baxter, in which humanity spreads out from Earth; is crushed and enslaved; frees itself; and in a much harder and violent form begins to assimilate and destroy other alien cultures, all the while being unaware of the larger and more important cosmic battle being fought all around it.
At the opening of Exultant, humanity is close to the end of its third wave of assimilation. It has spread across the galaxy crushing everything in its way -- even the mysterious and powerful Xeelee have retreated into the core of the galaxy. The whole of human society is held together unchanged across millions of light-years and billions of worlds by the Druz doctrines -- ruthless rules intended to keep humanity conquering and to punish any deviations from the human norm. The result is a human society turned into a colossal war machine, dedicated to one aim: the destruction of its last enemy, the Xeelee. But the war machine has been stalled for thousands of years. The Xeelee have no intention of leaving the galactic core, and their advanced technology (nightfighters constructed out of flaws in space-time itself) and ability to manipulate time means that every human assault is repelled easily. Trillions of human lives are wasted by hurling themselves at Xeelee defenses ... and it goes on and on. A war machine with billions of worlds full of generations of soldiers barely in their teens born in tanks and dying in thousand-year-long projects aimed at smashing the Xeelee, and knowing nothing but training, the doctrines and death. Whether in a coalescent hive or a not, it seems most human lives are spent in an empty drone-like struggle governed by simple rules -- indeed this message pervades the novel. In Coalescent the rules governing the eusocial society were:
Sisters matter more than daughters.
Ignorance is strength.
Listen to your sisters.
In Exultant the rules are the Druz doctrines, with a key part being 'A brief life burns brightly.'
In the middle of this multi-millennial slaughter, a young pilot, Pirius, and his crew decide to disobey doctrine and instead of throwing their lives away in a pointless heroic gesture they try a bold strategy. As a result they capture a Xeelee nightfighter, which is the first significant development in the war for hundreds of generations. Naturally, the rigid doctrinal bureaucracy chooses to prosecute him rather than promote him -- but with a twist. Thanks to his faster than light travel, Pirius has arrived back a few years before he left. Time is a malleable thing in this war and meeting oneself isn't unusual.
He arrives back to find himself still in training, and both Piriuses must be punished: one for breaking doctrine and the other to make sure he doesn't in future. His saviour is a strange Earth commissioner (part of the powerful bureaucracy controlling the war effort) who is desperate for a way to unlock the stalemate with the Xeelee and bring to an end the waste of life. He needs someone willing to step outside the rules -- even if it is only a little at first. So begins the split story of Pirius Red and Pirius Blue. One sent to a punishment camp to train as Xeelee cannon fodder, and the other taken back to Earth to see a solar system radically changed by alien occupation, thousands of years of industrial activity and a society at the core of the war effort that is not as doctrinally pure as he'd been brought up to believe.
No-one will ever accuse Stephen Baxter of thinking small. His Xeelee sequence novels are set in a universe teeming with life since the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang -- and indeed before that -- and a war that has raged between dark matter life-forms and baryonic life such as the Xeelee (with humans as a self-destructive nuisance ignorant of the larger conflict), for most of that time.
Exultant is a story of individual human courage and brilliance, and collective human stupidity and self-destruction. Those who dislike Baxter's work (and there are some!) because it is pessimistic about humanity as a whole will find nothing to change their minds here. On the other hand, anyone looking for hard science-fiction of breathtaking scope and bursting with invention and ideas will love it. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing where he goes with the next part. One advantage of following Baxter's work is that you rarely have long to wait between novels.
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