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Baxter, Stephen

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1957-    ) UK author, who has also signed his name Steve Baxter and S M Baxter. He began publishing sf with "The Xeelee Flower" for Interzone in Spring 1987, which with most of his earlier short work fits into his Xeelee Sequence, the main work of the first decade of his career, and significantly added to in later years. It constitutes an ambitious attempt at creating both – in the short term – a Future History for the human race, and – in the immensely long perspectives Baxter has increasingly found most comfortable to deal with – a Cosmology for the universe as a whole. The sequence to date includes Raft (September/October 1989 Interzone; much exp 1991), Timelike Infinity (1992), Flux (1993), Ring (1994) and Vacuum Diagrams: Stories of the Xeelee Sequence (coll 1997), which won a Philip K Dick Award in 1999 for its paperback publication in America; plus some shorter texts: Reality Dust (2000 chap) and Riding the Rock (2002 chap), both assembled in Resplendent (coll 2006), which also contains Xeelee: Destiny's Children stories (see below); and Starfall (2009 chap) and Gravity Dreams (coll 2011), both titles assembled with other material as Xeelee Endurance (coll 2015); two later volumes, Xeelee: Vengeance (2017) and Xeelee: Redemption (2018), carry the epic into the Far Future, with the recurring series protagonist Stephen Poole finding himself – if only until the plot thickens again – to be a Last Man figure.

The series continuity – as centrally narrated in the second and fourth volumes – follows humanity into the fraught arena of interstellar space, already dominated by the complex and enigmatic Alien Xeelee, who soon prove to be highly inimical to the fragile expansionist hopes of humanity. The long epic seems destined to end darkly, aeons hence, giving off strong hints (see Hive Minds; Omega Point; End of Time) that the universe, and the Intelligences capable of comprehending it, may become coterminous. Though the incessant fertility of Baxter's imagination makes it appropriate to think of his larger-scale effects in terms of Space Opera, the Xeelee Sequence, like most of his later fiction, is dense with Thought Experiments; along with Greg Bear and Gregory Benford, he is perhaps the most successful of all modern sf writers in marrying Space Opera and Hard SF. Raft, for instance, though it labours under the strain of an ineptly conceived protagonist, effectively posits an ultra-high-Gravity universe, and argues the consequences to migrant humans of living there; Flux minutely describes a microscopic folk who live on the surface of a Neutron Star; and the Time-Travel intricacies of Ring are dauntingly well-argued. But none of these books is defeated, as fiction, by the arguments they promulgate; and the sweeping millennia-long tale is carried off with a genuine Sense of Wonder.

Baxter also wrote several singletons over the same period. Anti-Ice (1993) is an Alternate History set in an England transfigured into a Steampunk Dystopia by the discovery of the eponymous superconductor – extracted from a fallen moonlet – which explodes with nuclear force when heated, but which is also capable of powering Spaceships. There is an occasional almost metallic flatness of tone in this novel, an affectlessness when individual humans take the foreground, which also has a muting effect on Baxter's finest single early work, The Time Ships (1995). The latter novel won a John W Campbell Memorial Award in 1996, as well as the Philip K Dick Award, the latter given, as in the case of Vacuum Diagrams (see above), for the book's later publication in the US in paperback [this peculiarity is mentioned here as – see Checklist below – we list only first editions]. Based explicitly and with the approval of his estate on H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895), this Sequel by Other Hands – the first of his Wells Sequels series – confirms the sense that Baxter is almost certainly the premier current author of the Scientific Romance, and that – like his great predecessors in the form, Wells, Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C Clarke (with whom he has collaborated, see below) – he tends most naturally to work out the implications of his tales through long-breathed Evolutionary perspectives; that he is pessimistic about how likely it is that the human race is destined to triumph, either on this planet or abroad; that he is uncomfortable with the model of the Competent Man central to twentieth-century American Hard SF; and that he has a sweet-tooth for the eschatological climax (see again End of the World; Omega Point: see also Transcendence). His second transaction of Wells's world, The Massacre of Mankind: A Sequel to The War of the Worlds (2017), closely and learnedly models itself on The War of the Worlds (1898), in a tale set twenty years later in an Alternate World where World War One had not occurred, the Jonbar Point here being, roughly, the events of the previous novel.

Voyage (1996), also from these fertile years, is an Alternate History in which America does not abandon the movement into space, landing the first man on Mars in 1986; and Titan (1997) offers a deeply bleak vision of Near Future Earth, politically corrupt and terminally contaminated, which is not much lightened by a valiant (but doomed) space voyage to the eponymous moon of Saturn (see Outer Planets). Moonseed (1998) is a not entirely successful attempt to wed Baxter's concerns to the widescreen approach of the American Disaster novel: Earth is devoured by alien Nanotechnology that reduces it to a form of Grey Goo, and there is a wildly unlikely evacuation to the Moon (provided with a deus ex machina atmosphere). But Baxter's finest later singleton may be Evolution (2002), a pure Scientific Romance traversal of the story of Evolution on Earth, from the deep past and the passing of the Dinosaurs through humanity's brief ascendancy down to a future of Devolution not dissimilar to (but more closely argued than) that depicted by Wells in The Time Machine (1895); as in the Scientific Romance form at its most intense, dozens of exemplary characters are viewed with chastening objectivity, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. By the end of the century, Baxter was focusing once again on series, though The Medusa Chronicle (2016) with Alastair Reynolds, a Sequel by Other Hands to Arthur C Clarke's A Meeting with Medusa (December 1971 Playboy; 1988 chap), is a singleton which mines, as the authors suggest in an afterword, Clarke's last significant shorter work. Through a long sequence of Infodump-heavy speculative conversations and conferences, Galaxias (2021) describes the literal removal for twenty-four hours of Earth's Sun as a possible warning gesture from the postulated eponymous Living World to Homo sapiens, the message being that we are too immature and uncontrolled to be allowed to pollute the galaxy. Our ultimate response is to begin a multi-millennia project to remove the solar system from the home galaxy, whose harmony will thus be preserved.

The Mammoth sequence – Mammoth: Silverhair (1999; vt Silverhair 1999); Longtusk: Mammoth Book Two (2000) and Icebones: Mammoth Book Three (2001) – describes an Earth in which sentient mammoths survive, though just barely, through the time of humanity. The Manifold sequence – Time: Manifold 1 (1999; vt Manifold: Time 1999), Space: Manifold 2 (2000; vt Manifold: Space 2000) and Origin: Manifold 3 (2001; vt Manifold: Origin 2001) – explores almost frenziedly a series of Alternate History iterations of the implications of the Fermi Paradox, which argues that if Alien species did in fact exist in the wide universe, they would have already visited us ("If they existed, they would be here."). As so often in Baxter, there is no final answer understandable by humans, though some higher controlling entity (for whom/which we are all iterations in an experiment beyond our ken) may have the answer. This manipulative remoteness also governs the Time's Tapestry sequence – comprising Emperor (2006), Conqueror (2007), Navigator (2007) and Weaver (2008) – through a figure from the future known as the Weaver, actually a group engaged in a Changewar with Nazi Germany, whose Scientists are attempting to prevent the discovery and growth of America. The series climaxes in an Alternate History version of World War Two with the Invasion of England, the traditional Hitler Wins implication of this climax being averted by the eventual defeat of Germany. More down to Earth, the Disaster Diptych comprising Flood (2008) and Ark (2009) depicts first a great Disaster in which Earth is effectively flooded, and the subsequent escape of part of humanity via Generation Starship; the sequence is extended in three novellas assembled, with other material, in Universes (coll 2013).

The best of these later sequences is probably Destiny's Children, a subset of the Xeelee series comprising Coalescent (2003) – which imagines the evolution of a human Hive Mind in historical times – Exultant (2004) and Transcendent (2005), with the story collection Resplendent (coll 2006) added as a pendant, which compellingly conflates two strands of Baxter's work: his increasingly intense concern with family groups as natural units and natural bearers of genes through time; and the increasingly poignant escapology inherent in what has begun his standard conclusion to a story of any heft: Transcendence, some paradise of unfleshed universe-encompassing Intelligence which Posthuman "humans" may aspire to join, as motes might aspire to join the sun. This is perhaps less evident, though hinted at, in the Alternate History Northland sequence comprising Stone Summer (2010), Bronze Summer (2011) and Iron Winter (2012), which begins as Prehistoric SF set in an Earth where the last Ice Age retreated only partially, leaving Britain (here known as Etxelur) attached to the continent; by the late middle ages the ice begins to return, and the sequence ends sombrely.

With Terry Pratchett, Baxter created the Long Earth series starting with The Long Earth (2012), a title which refers to a possible infinity of Parallel-World versions of Earth, and as well to the colourful journeys of exploration from world to world (see Fantastic Voyages) afforded the principal characters of the first volume, who include an AI Uploaded into an Airship and a World War One soldier named Percy Blakeney (for the Scarlet Pimpernel, see Baroness Orczy). Exploration proceeds stepwise through the endless sequence of Earths, each connected to slightly different alternate versions to its "east" and "west"; an ingenious touch in the first book is the discovery that, millions of steps from the Earth we know, one member of the sequence is missing – destroyed by a colossal spatial impact – so that here it is possible to step into Earth's empty orbit, allowing access to space without the need for Rockets or Space Elevators. A later volume, The Long Mars (2014) features similar exploration of the endless sequence of similarly step-connected versions of Mars.

Proxima (2013) seems at first to be a singleton, as the initial problem – how properly to colonize Proxima Centauri – is complexly resolved. After several dashing expansions in scale, both temporal and spatial (see Sense of Wonder), the tale seems to climax in a Slingshot Ending as the main protagonists encounter, in a Alternate World they do not recognize, a Spaceship which debouches a warrior in Roman gear (see Medieval Futurism). The scale expands yet further, encompassing galactic space and deep time, in the sequel Ultima (2014). What may now be termed the Proxima/Ultima sequence again demonstrates Baxter's unceasing urgency of mind; as does Creation Node (2023), where a dogged tool-kit basic plot – an Ecologically devastated Earth's faltering dominance of nearby planets is threatened by the discovery of a Macrostructure with a message in the Oort Cloud – darkens steadily as conservative factions perhaps fatally missplay the implications (see End of the World) of the message and messenger born to us from the heart of the galaxy. The playground of Baxter's earlier fiction is closing, but the jouissance is being terminated, for cause, by its very maker.. [JC]

see also: Asteroids; Clichés; Christ; Games Workshop; Imaginary Science; Physics; Rays; Seiun Award; Time Opera; Time Radio; Time Viewer; Virtual Reality; Xeelee.

Stephen Michael Baxter

born Liverpool, England: 13 November 1957




Xeelee: Destiny's Children

  • Coalescent (London: Gollancz, 2003) [Xeelee: Destiny's Children: hb/EkhornForss]
  • Exultant (London: Gollancz, 2004) [Xeelee: Destiny's Children: hb/EkhornForss]
  • Transcendent (London: Gollancz, 2005) [Xeelee: Destiny's Children: hb/EkhornForss]
  • Resplendent (London: Gollancz, 2006) [coll: Xeelee: Destiny's Children: hb/EkhornForss]

Wells Sequels

NASA Trilogy

  • Voyage (London: HarperCollins, 1996) [NASA Trilogy: hb/Chris Moore]
  • Titan (London: HarperCollins, 1997) [NASA Trilogy: hb/Chris Moore]
  • Moonseed (London: HarperCollins, 1998) [NASA Trilogy: hb/Chris Moore]

The Web



A Time Odyssey

Time's Tapestry

  • Emperor (London: Gollancz, 2006) [Time's Tapestry: hb/Getty/Corbis]
  • Conqueror (London: Gollancz, 2007) [Time's Tapestry: hb/Shamwana]
  • Navigator (London: Gollancz, 2007) [Time's Tapestry: hb/Corbis]
  • Weaver (London: Gollancz, 2008) [Time's Tapestry: hb/Corbis/Magnum]

Disaster Diptych

  • Flood (London: Gollancz, 2008) [Disaster Diptych: hb/]
  • Ark (London: Gollancz, 2009) [Disaster Diptych: hb/]


Doctor Who

The Long Earth


  • Proxima (London: Gollancz, 2013) [Proxima/Ultima: hb/blacksheep]
  • Ultima (London: Gollancz, 2014) [Proxima/Ultima: hb/blacksheep]
  • Obelisk (London: Gollancz, 2016) [Proxima/Ultima: hb/blacksheep]

individual titles

collections and stories


about the author

  • Vector, special Stephen Baxter issue (Winter 2011 Vector #265) [mag/]


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