When I read the first book of the Destiny’s Children trilogy I thought I had figured out where Baxter was going with this (using human hives to retcon and thus better explain the idiotic war against the Xeelee). I was wrong, but that’s not so bad, as this book provides a very rich and dense story in its own right. It’s about the final war between humanity and the Xeelee concerning the dominance over the Milky Way.
There’s so much about the book that I think merits mentioning that it’s hard to find a good starting point. Better than any previous attempts it manages to convey to horror and futility of the war against the Xeelee. At times it reminds me of Warhammer 40k, which is similar in that humanity is tied to wage an endless war all over our home galaxy. The main difference between the two settings is that at least in the Warhammer 40k universe there is a good justification for everything, whereupon there is none in the Xeelee universe, which makes Baxter’s setting even grimmer.
Another interesting aspect of Baxter’s future is that humanity has all the technology to go post-human, but hasn’t due to the dominant philosophy that has forged humanity into the war machine that it is. All divergence from the human baseline, all kinds of technological progress or social changes are greatly mistrusted and feared. Imagine Charles Stross’s Glasshouse, after the bad guys have won. That’s the kind of future that could have followed from there: xenophobic, hostile and repressive as hell.
Exultant also sheds some light on the background and evolution of the Xeelee, some of which tries very hard to crash your suspension of disbelief (cosmological inflation and the baryon asymmetry are consequences of live tinkering with the universe in its early stages). The depiction of the Xeelee also seems less forgiving than in previous novels of the sequence. Instead of the all-powerful technological gods that try their best not to harm humanity in its insane rage, they are shown as aloof, all-powerful technological gods who don’t really care for less developed races in the galaxy. In many ways, this harsher depiction of the Xeelee makes much more sense considering some of the actions (or actions not taken) from the earlier stories and novels.
Overall, another excellent entry in the Xeelee sequence. Very grim in places, but always an exciting read and the ending really is one of those big, satisfying finales that are extremely hard to do well.