In an alternate reality where Neil Armstrong died during the first Moon landing, Reid Malenfant, crashes his shuttle launch vehicle and wakes up in 2469. The post-apocalyptic Earth is a garden paradise controlled by a highly evolved AI system, the Codex, while the Interplanetary AI on the Moon broods, watching over mankind’s remnants. Man has withdrawn from space, although technology exists to reclaim abandoned planetary outposts. Why was Malenfant wakened after three centuries? A signal from Phobos made by his wife Emma, which was impossible. In his timeline, his wife died during an expedition to Phobos. A rogue planet within the Solar System will crash into Neptune in two years’ time, which would destroy Earth and all mankind. Determined to find out how his Emma could still be alive, he makes an expedition to Phobos, an ancient engine that is a roadway to alternate realities. There, he finds his Emma, including remnants of a Russian and British expedition from other realities. Together, they launch themselves into the outer Solar System in an attempt to divert the oncoming rogue planet and save mankind.
As with other Stephen Baxter’s books, World Engines starts off as a compelling story. The reader is thrust into Earth’s fascinating social structure where man does pretty much whatever he wants. There is no war, hunger, or political intrigue, and Earth is slowly recovering after centuries of ecological destruction. Man should have been happy, and they were to an extent, were it not for the Destroyer, the rogue planet destined to end everything. Malenfant struggles to find his place in this strange new Earth, searching for answers, which the powerful Codex is unable to provide. This is where Malenfant’s two-dimensional character fails readers. He is adrift, without clear goals, and only the vaguest idea what he wants to do. And the vast intelligence of the Planetary AI recruits this person to save mankind? A highly improbable scenario. There are many holes in the story’s plot through which the reader can fall, but Stephen Baxter’s smooth writing keeps the reader going. The plot steadily crumbles when Malenfant reaches Phobos and the writing descends into rambling irrelevancy and questionable tactics. The attempt to divert the Destroyer fails and the story abruptly stops in a highly unsatisfactory and unfulfilling manner. It appears that Stephen Baxter has grown weary of his book, as he has done with several of his other works, and decided to stop torturing his readers.
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About Stephen Baxter
Baxter was born in 1957 in Liverpool, England and studied at St Edward’s College, a Catholic grammar school. He then read mathematics at Cambridge University, obtained a doctorate in engineering at Southampton University, and received an MBA from Henley Management College. Baxter taught maths, physics, and information technology before becoming a full-time author in 1995. He is also a chartered engineer and fellow of the British Interplanetary Society.