Flux by Stephen Baxter

Xeelee Sequence omnibus by Stephen Baxter containing the novels: Raft, Timelike Infinity, Flux and Ring
Xeelee Sequence omnibus by Stephen Baxter containing the novels: Raft, Timelike Infinity, Flux and Ring

The novel “Flux” by Stephen Baxter was published for the first time in 1993. It’s considered the third novel in the Xeelee Sequence.

The most powerful glitch, the instability in a pulsar’s magnetic field caused by changes in the star’s rotation, ever seen by humans destroys the net of ropes in which a group of humans lived killing several of them and also causing the loss of much of their food.

Among the survivors, Dula, her brother Farr, the elder Adda and Philas go in search for more food but Adda gets seriously wounded by a sow. While Philas goes back to the group of survivors, the others meet an inhabitant of Parz City who brings them to the hospital where Adda can be cured.

Dula and Farr have to find a job to pay for Adda’s treatment but Parz City is threatened by powerful new instabilities too. Some people think that they are caused by the legendary Xeelee but many consider those stories as fairy tales.

Despite being considered the third novel in the Xeelee Sequence, “Flux” is the first in which these mysterious aliens actually appear. It’s set in a neutron star, one of the strangest environments it’s possible to set a story in.

The beginning of “Flux” may puzzle readers because of the very special setting and because Stephen Baxter uses familiar names for objects or creatures that are not. Soon, it becomes clear that the humans protagonists of this novel have microscopic size through references to various lengths. Terms such as “pigs” and “wood” are used to refer to life forms native to the neutron star.

The prtagonists of “Flux” behave like normal human beings but in the course of the novel various information are provided to show how their physiology and their senses are completely different from those of normal humans. These microscopic humans travel by manipulating the flow of the magnetic fields inside the neutron star.

In this strange environment, these human beings live in a pre-industrial society which instead is easy to understand because both the one existing in Parz City and the one of the nomadic group are very similar to many cases of those kinds in the history of Earth’s normal human beings.

Part of “Flux” concerns the origin of these miniaturized humans and why the star they live in was attacked by the Xeelee. As in the previous novel in the Xeelee Sequence “Timelike Infinity“, there are references to the Ring, a new anticipation for the next novel.

The setting in a strange place such as a neutron star is by far the best element of “Flux”. Only Hal Clement and very few other authors were able to describe in such a precise and plausible way such extreme environments. With this novel, Stephen Baxter shows again that he’s one of the most important hard science fiction writers.

In the case of “Flux”, the protagonists are human beings, however from a physical point of view they’re stranger than most of the aliens seen in science fiction stories because their bodies are similar to those of normal human beings only in terms of their shape. I wonder if Stephen Baxter exaggerated in having characters so tiny as it seems unlikely that such small creatures can have a mind as complex as a human mind.

By carefully examining the information provided by Stephen Baxter on microscopic human beings of “Flux”, it might be possible to find that they are implausible in other ways. However it’s not easy to assess exactly what’s really possible in an environment such as a neutron star.

The story of “Flux” takes place in one of the most exotic environments ever described and the plot is almost trivial by comparison. It’s almost as if Stephen Baxter used his inventiveness almost exclusively to imagine life in a neutron star and he had very little left for the actual story.

However, the characters are well developed, especially the protagonist Dura, who lived her entire life as a nomad but she has to adapt to living in Parz City and eventually even she doesn’t know who she is anymore.

“Flux” is overall a pretty good novel which for the type of content I especially recommend to fans of hard science fiction. It can be read independently but in my opinion the best choice is to read the entire Xeelee Sequence.

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