Ultima by Stephen Baxter

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Ultima by Stephen Baxter

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: Stephen Baxter writes a sequel to last year's Proxima - a huge, all encompassing Science Fiction epic that holds ginormous ideas and concepts, but unfortunately forgets to develop characters for some of the ride. Thankfully, all comes together in the end, providing a finale so thrilling it makes the rather difficult start almost forgivable.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: November 2014
Publisher: Gollancz
ISBN: 978-0575116870

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In Proxima, alien hatches were discovered across the galaxy, hatches that when opened caused completely unimaginable events to occur - amongst many strange happenings, one character suddenly had a twin she didn't have previously , and one hatch led to a different earth, where the Roman Empire never died.

It is there that Ultima begins - on a world where the Roman Empire never fell, and the technology and culture is markedly different as a result.

This world is explored in length. Great length, and to be honest, reading about it begins to feel like quite a chore. Proxima was heavily character driven, and I went into Ultima hoping for more exploration of Yuri and Stef, but instead had to read what felt like a science fiction history book, with little tension, drive or excitement to make me want to keep turning the pages. It's a very well written exploration of a strange new culture, but given that the last book left me invested in characters and gripped to find out what would happen, I was disappointed to have to slowly read through a section that did absolutely nothing to thrill, entertain or challenge me.

Thankfully, things do pick up - characters begin to become vivid again, and the story picks up such a pace that the finale is genuinely quite staggering - and I concede that it did make reading the book, especially the lackadaisical first two or so hundred pages, worthwhile. In addition, the ideas and concepts that Baxter is dealing with, as well as a diverse cast of voices with which he tells his story, really do come together to make for a fantastic story in the end.

On reflection I feel that perhaps Ultima should be read directly after Proxima - as the year or two break I have had since reading Ultima means that I wasn't quite as invested in the characters or situations as I could have been, and so may have found the first half more heavy going partly due to that.

Another problem for those invested in the characters from Proxima, is that they are not featured a huge amount here - the tale really passes on to their descendants, and as the plot becomes massive, spanning alternate universes and timelines, these new characters don't get half the development that was given in Proxima - although given that things are left very much in the air at the end of the book, it's possible that more stories could be following set in this universe.

Stephen Baxter is an incredibly skilled author - a successor to Arthur C Clarke and Philip K Dick who has kept me entertained for years with his clever books written around huge ideas and concepts. However, one thing Ultima suggested to me was that perhaps Baxter requires more editing. Whilst the last third is genuinely brilliant, the first third or so really feels so slow and flabby that there were points when I considered not picking the book up again - something which really, really pains me to do. It took me a great deal longer to read than most books, and a few days longer than Proxima - which I tore through at a rapid pace.

The two books together tell a fantastic story, and I still think Stephen Baxter is, following the untimely death of Iain M Banks, probably our best Science Fiction writer, but you will need patience and determination to get through the first half of Ultima.

Also, do make sure you have read Proxima first - you'll be completely baffled if not!

Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.

Iain M Banks wrote incredibly fun, sometimes moving and always thought-provoking Science Fiction - The Algebraist is just one example.

And it's hard to read Science Fiction without thinking about one of the great masters - Philip K Dick left a huge legacy, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a very big part of that.

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