Stephen Baxter has to be the most ambitious sci-fi writer working today. Not only did he have the big brass balls to seek out and write an official sequel to H.G. Wells “The Time Machine” (that, I might add, did NOT suck), he has also been acknowledged to be the successor to Arthur C. Clarke by no less an authority than Clarke himself. And Baxter spent the first two decades of his prolific writing career knocking out novels and short stories that aimed at spanning nothing less than the entire history of the universe, and cover the entire history of the human race.
While he didn’t initially plan it, with his first few short stories Baxter quickly realized all of his far-flung characters and situations shared the same setting. Eventually these were all linked together in his epic Xeelee saga, the story of a million-year-long war with an alien race so powerful they use whole galaxies as weapons. Yet as fantastical as Baxter’s concepts are, he grounds them all in deeply researched hard science … science that will blow your mind.
To be fair, before you get to “The Eighth Room” you should probably read the rest of the short stories collected together in “Vacuum Diagrams” — if nothing else, you need to read the story before it, “Shell.” Both combine to tell of mankind’s ultimate fate in this universe. Utterly defeated by the Xeelee, the human race has been locked away in vast tesseract — a hypercube bigger on the inside than on the out — and imprisoned within an artificial world constructed on a mobius strip. Reduced to a handful of primitive tribes, humanity has been there so long (several million years when the tale opens) they no longer remember who they are, or that they’re even living in an artificial construct. A construct that is finally, slowly, and horrifically, failing.
One young girl — yes, using science — eventually realizes there is a way out. The alien Xeelee, not completely without compassion, have left an escape hatch for the humans … if only they can find it time.
Often creepy and surreal, “The Eighth Room” is Baxter’s forlorn exploration of human nature, ignorance and elaborate multidimensional puzzles.
(Oh yeah, and if anyone ever sees a copy of the Xeelee Omnibus, let me know — Vacuum Diagrams is still in book stores, but Baxter’s ultimate singular collection is out of print and getting hard to find.)