Astronaut Reid Malenfant must indeed be the ultimate bad penny, as he has shown up at the beginning of each of Stephen Baxter's Manifold Trilogy, at pretty much the same point in his life, and the stories have gone on from there.
This time around, Malenfant is nursing a grudge against NASA for scrubbing him from a shuttle mission for not being a team player and trying to bore a hole in the sky over Africa where he's been sent in good-will-tour exile.
Dragging his wife Emma along for the ride, he avails himself of one of an astronaut's favorite privileges, flying himself to and fro in a jet, specifically a T-38, the iconic aircraft of astronauts. High altitude joyriding fails to calm the cranky Malenfant, but when a blue circle of light suddenly appears eight miles above the African plain and starts dropping what looks like humans into the rift valley where mankind's origins have been traced, he's hot on the trail of the sort of quest he's lived his entire life for - to find out whether or not we're alone in the universe - and why.
Heedless of the danger of getting precisely what you wish for, Malenfant heads towards the blue hole in the sky only to have his plane torn apart by turbulence...and Emma drawn into the mysterious artifact.
Along with the blue circles comes a much bigger disturbance, a wandering red moon that pops into our moon's orbit as though it's always been there, though from the tidal havoc it's massive size causes, mankind hopes it doesn't plan on sticking around...and wrecking the world.
Malenfant believes that the blue circle led to the red moon and that if he can only get there, he can find Emma. The new moon is large enough for an atmosphere and clearly supporting vegetation, and the creatures that fell from the sky were human, or nearly human, as nearly so as our distant ancestors.
In a move that has become the hallmark of Stephen Baxter's stories, Malenfant cobbles together a lunar mission out of shuttle components and a reentry vehicle from the International Space Station while strong-arming the President into supporting his mission. Together with the Japanese astronomer Nemoto who has also shared his adventures in Manifold Space (SFRevu Feb 2001) and Manifold Time, he voyages to the first inhabited world man has visited, only to find that "man" has been there all along.
The red moon is populated by almost every type of homind that ever graced our evolutionary tree, and a few more besides. There's even a civilization of almost exactly humans, complete with a fanatical religious fervor that has earned them the name "Zealots".
Told from the viewpoints of different members of the hominid species, including Malenfant, Emma and Nemoto, the story slowly unravels the mystery of what the red moon is and why it hops between "a sheaf of worlds," alternate Earths, reaping and sowing humanity in all its stages.
Malenfant is a cranky, self-absorbed, human sort of guy, and over he past three books we've spent a lot of time with him knocking about the cosmos, the eons, and this alien moon. Like his wife we get exasperated at him for his irritating self directedness, and like her also, we'll miss him when the story is finished.
Just as the wizard Ged becomes a secondary character in Tehanu, Urslua Le Guin's epilogic work of her EarthSea trilogy, this book is more the story of the women in it than of Malenfant himself. Emma learns to live with the hominids who have no sense of today or tomorrow, but paradoxixally speak a rudimentary English. Nemoto studies everything, wondering at the moon's treasure of living fossils, and trying to make sense of it. Then there are hominid women through whom the story is told, Shadow, Mary, and the ultra-evolved Manekatopokanemahedo - the product of two million years of isolated evolution and as far above us as the builders of the red moon are above her.
If you're looking for a happy ending, you've never read Stephen Baxter. Nothing he writes is ever that simple. You'll find triumphs and tragedies aplenty, but the author has little use for tidy and pleasant endings...and neither does his universe.
One disturbing note was my realization that the end of this book, and hence the Manifold Trilogy, was really quite similar to the end of Mission to Mars, Gary Sinese's Mars Movie from 2000...and we really didn't think much of it then. It wears a bit better here, but the similarity is really a bit frightening.
The characters in this story pull you along with them determinedly. Will Malenfant find Emma? Is he really looking for her, or something else, and will he know it when he sees it. Will Nemoto find her answers about life and the universe? Will anyone ever get back to Earth, and which Earth will they get back to if they do? Will we ever make sense out of the whole trilogy?
I feel a bit like the hominids that Reid encounters on the Red Moon, trying to puzzle the nuances of Baxter's story arc throughout the three books, but coming away with the feeling that I'm missing something important. Having gone through the others, each of which I've enjoyed, I chuckled over the authors wry pokes at irony as his characters discussed the possibilities of parallel universes and parallel lives, talking almost as if they knew that they had each been players in the other books, and only the stage kept changing.
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu