A group of people reached a different timeline and only the artificial intelligence known as Earthshine has some idea about what’s going on. The human beings who made that strange journey are only interested in trying to make a living in the new conditions despite the difficulties.
For Earthshine the matter is quite different because its plans are much more ambitious and long-term. The new situation is just another step in the search for the mysterious creators of hatches and kernels. His actions, however, can bring unexpected consequences, at least for his old traveling companions.
“Ultima” begins immediately after the end of “Proxima”, with which it forms a single great story that has a very long duration, passing through generations of human characters, and should be read in its entirety. The first book laid the foundations in the first timeline with the original characters and the mysteries of the hatches and kernels. The second book keeps on developing the story over an even longer period of time with alternative timelines that become a central element.
In these two books Stephen Baxter tells a long journey in which the protagonists must periodically try to orient themselves in a cosmos that’s bigger and stranger than they could have imagined because of the existence of alternative timelines. For most science fiction writers the idea of alternative timelines would be enough for a novel and even for a whole series, Baxter adds far more because he puts them in a bigger scenario along with many other elements.
“Proxima” was already complex because it introduced important mysteries in an intricate scenario like the future described by Stephen Baxter. “Ultima” in some ways adds to that complexity because in the end the author gives answers to those mysteries but only after having described various alternative futures that have their meaning in the great scenario in which they exist. It’s not an accident that in the two novels there are various generations of human characters who act along with other characters who join them in various timelines and of the ones that appeared in the first book only artificial creatures such as Earthshine and the ColU robot reach the end.
The characters tend to be functional to the great story and because of their amount only a few have a significant development. In some cases, certain complex relationships between some of the characters end up weighing down the story instead of making it more interesting and in a novel that already has central themes that are anything but lighthearted, this is a problem. A certain tendency towards exposition through dialogues that’s rather prominent even by Stephen Baxter’s standards, is also a burden to the story. Another consequence is that the pace is sometimes slow, on the other hand in a novel like “Ultima” the settings are important so it seems right that the author included quite long descriptions about them.
The long journey started with a portrait of future humanity that was far from positive but the alternatives shown in “Ultima” seem even worse in many ways. The last part tells a far from happy ending and this pessimistic element doesn’t help to stimulate the reader’s enthusiasm. However, the two novels also contain the positive elements typical of Stephen Baxter’s works with scientific speculations, various possible future technologies and exotic life forms. Together with the alternative timelines, they’re what make these two novels interesting.
“Ultima” ends the great story started in “Proxima” leaving open a possibility of continuation that a few years later didn’t lead to other sequels. Probably they’re not among Stephen Baxter’s best novels but hard science fiction fans in particular might like them.