Transcendent isn't. With this novel, Stephen Baxter wraps up (one hopes) his ambitious but wildly uneven Destiny's Children trilogy, which speculates upon possible evolutionary futures for humanity. In Coalescent, he envisioned the family unit merging into a sort of hive entity, while in Exultant, he showed a human race locked in developmental stasis waging a war without end near the galaxy's core.
In Transcendent, Baxter reintroduces the Poole family of Coalescent and takes a slightly divergent path from the one that story took. Two plot threads are followed simultaneously. In one, set in the mid-21st century, the world is slowly stabilizing from the cumulative effects of global warming. The ice caps have melted, the Earth's population has shrunk to a fraction of its former level, and everything seems grey and bleak. But for Michael Poole, personal crises are taking a front seat. Estranged from most of his family, a promising career stalled in mid-stream, he leaps upon the chance to do something to stave off further ecological disasters that could threaten what remnants of humanity are left. When his son is nearly killed doing relief work in a remote area of Russia, Michael realizes that the event that nearly did him in — a gas hydrate eruption deep underground that sent a toxic cloud of carbon dioxide and methane roaring to the surface — could begin happening on a global scale if climatic changes continue at their current pace. Should — and can — something be done before it's too late? And if all this weren't stressful enough, Michael's been having visions of his dead wife Morag.
The second storyline slingshots us half a million years into the future, when humanity has spread out to literally every nook and cranny in the galaxy. Most everyone is posthuman to some degree, particularly the emergent species called the Transcendents, who govern the entire human Commonwealth. This is a superadvanced species of hive-mind similar to the Coalescents of Coalescent, except that, as they approach something very much like divinity, the Transcendents initiate a process called the Redemption. Redemption requires all humans to engage in Witnessing. (Are you already getting as tired as I got of Baxter's clichéd habit of coming up with one ritualistic practice bearing a pompous-sounding capitalized name after another?) Witnessing uses what Baxter lazily only refers to as "unimaginable technology" to enable one to observe the lives of individuals throughout humanity's past. The motivation for this is that the Transcendents feel such guilt and anguish over the eons of woe and violence and disaster and strife in humanity's past that all of that must be, er, Redeemed, somehow, before humanity can evolve further.
Alia is a young girl who, it just so happens, has been Witnessing the life of Michael Poole. (And she thinks he's somehow noticed. Hmm, could this have something to do with....?) Just as George Poole's sister Rosa was taken from her family to join the Order in Coalescent, here, Alia is taken from her family, as she has been chosen by the Transcendents to become one of them. Undergoing yet another series of rituals with capitalized names, she meets one group of humans who attempt to get her to rebel against the Transcendents, as it's their view that Witnessing is pointless and the Redemption an impossibly vast, unattainable goal. Alia reserves judgment, deciding to go on with her training and not be bullied into a decision one way or another.
So what's the problem? Both storylines have reasonably compelling beginnings. But in Michael's, it gets increasingly hard to buy what Baxter's trying to sell. In order to make Michael's story work, he has to concoct a wholly unrealistic political scenario in which humanity, after the effects of global warming became incontrovertible, gradually weaned itself off automobiles, followed by America leading the world in something called the Stewardship. (Yes, those doggone capitalized rituals just flow from Baxter's pen!) The Stewardship is like a Greenpeace wet dream come to life, in which both politics and industry devote themselves to environmental, humanitarian and other altruistic causes. Perhaps Baxter knows full well that, in this world in which we actually live, Britney Spears is more likely to become a nun. The United States is, if nothing else, excellent at denialism and refusing to come up with common sense solutions to potentially drastic problems, if those solutions in any way negatively impact Wall Street. Perhaps Baxter is deliberately introducing this scenario to show how difficult things could still be, even if the best-case scenario for humanity coming to its senses and dealing with generations of its follies were realized. But it still makes for a story whose plausibility is a little too shaky for comfort.
But more of a problem than Transcendent's implausibility is that the book settles into a plodding, monotonous rhythm about halfway through that deflates reader interest as quickly as air rushing from a punctured tire. We get a lot of traveling and talking, talking and traveling. What we don't get is a sense of personal connection to either protagonist, or a reason to care about the problems they face. Especially, we fail to be awed by Baxter's posthuman visions for humanity's distant future. While I continue to be impressed by Stephen Baxter's willingness to tackle difficult subject matter and weave complex, challenging stories, I fear these stories in particular haven't delivered the sense of wonder intended. It's only right for an SF writer to try to transcend the genre. It's only human if his results sometimes leave you a little less than exultant.
Followed by Resplendent, a short story collection set in this trilogy's future, which was not released in the US.