Ultima by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This one was a satisfying end to the duology as long as we go along with the premise that the past is always full of options and the future always ends in death.
I'm talking universal death under the theory that there is a finite number of universes in a multi-verse, meaning that somewhere along the line the bubble is going to pop when it runs up against the wall. It's a very fascinating theory and it even makes a ton of sense because infinite is a very irrational number.
So what does this mean for this story? It means that none of us have as long as we think we have. It's the universal equivalent of random death. It can happen at any time. It can even happen to whole universes at any time.
This is scary. It also means that the story frame of massively parallel intelligences toying around with space-time effects in order to tweak the universe's beginnings or any small factor afterward is really just a last-ditch effort to find a way out of the exploding-bubble mess.
On a human scale, we were introduced to weird things happening such as alternate timelines re-writing the universe with the exception of the people going through the Hatches on these remote planets, each of whom remember everything about their old universe.
In this novel, the whole alternate timeline angle is taken all the way, giving us a Roman Empire that never ended, an Incan civilization that succeeded and colonized worlds, too. Each one is just another subtle tweak attempting to give humanity that one small glimmer of hope, that tiny little edge.
So what's the real theme of the novel, then? Curiosity is really big. So is the simplicity of wanting a journey. None of it is easy, of course, and it's a real trip to see Roman Legionnaires get pummeled by the Incans, but the real treat has got to be the inclusion of the AIs.
I don't know. The novel sets out to demonstrate tons of options that always narrow down to the last single choice, or no choice. He succeeds perfectly.
Me, personally? I think it's a perfect expression of fatalism. No hope. Surrounded by endless hope, super-intelligences dreaming up new realities, and yet, all of it is for nothing. It's rather scary.
Good book, but still rather scary.
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