12 November 2004

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter

Once upon a time I offered to give an advance reading copy of Stephen Baxter's new novel, Exultant or Harry Turtledove's Homeward Bound to anyone who wanted to write a review of the book and its predecessor(s). Nobody took me up on the offer, exactly.

However, all is not lost. Stuart Carter let me know that he had written about both Exultant and Coalescent, the predecessor. Then Niall Harrison, who I'd secretly hoped had not gotten his hands on Exultant yet and would like to write about it, sent me a review of Coalescent. He didn't need my copy of the book (alas, since the whole point of the exercise was that I needed to get rid of some books), but I told him that if no-one else responded I'd be thrilled to use what he had written. In the meantime, he wrote about Exultant in a long and fascinating post about five recent space operas. Consequently, there's a lot of material about Exultant out there.

Niall thinks I should read the book and write about it, because, he says, it's distant enough from Coalescent to be able to be read just fine on its own, and he's curious what I'll make of it. Therefore, I'm not going to give my ARC of the book away, at least not until I've had a chance to read it, which I will do sometime between now and the heat death of the universe.

Until then, here is Niall Harrison on Coalescent:


COALESCENT by Stephen Baxter
a review by Niall Harrison

Sometimes it's hard to know where to start reading an author. That's particularly true if most or all of their work fits into one or twolength series; I wouldn't, for instance, know where to start with Lois McMaster Bujold or Terry Pratchett. Reading Stephen Baxter doesn't present quite that scale of problem, but even so a fair chunk of his work is set in his 'Xeelee Sequence'. Coalescent, Baxter's most recent novel but one, is a case in point; but because it's the start of a new three-book series, Destiny's Children, it might also be as good a place to start as any.

The novel has two strands. Now or in the very near future, George Poole returns to Manchester after his father's death and discovers evidence of a sister he never knew he had. He starts a search for her.

In alternate chapters, as the Roman Empire falls, one of George's distant ancestors is growing up. Regina travels across ancient Britain and through a crumbling civilisation. She begins searching for ways to ensure her family line remains stable and safe, forever.

Her answer is to found a matriarchal religious order, hidden in catacombs under the city of Rome. Riding out the turbulent centuries between Regina's time and ours, the Order keeps itself hidden--keeps itself so separate, in fact, that natural selection has the time and the opportunity to take effect, and the Order's members are nudged onto a divergent evolutionary path. Over time, living in the dark, the society develops a hypersensitivity to pheromones. Space is strictly limited, so the right to bear children is tightly controlled; delayed puberty becomes a desireable trait, as does adaptation for bearing multiple children at once. If these characteristics sound familiar, that's not surprising. The same traits are observed in workers and queens, in ant and other eusocial colonies. In short, the Order is starting to become a hive.

Baxter's big idea, because this is hard SF and the plot has to work literally as well as metaphorically, is to try to make the hive biologically plausible. The timescale is a fudge (evolution's probably not that quick), and you have to be willing to take the mental leap to accepting this type of speciation in humans (it helps to know that eusociality is possible in mammalian species--Baxter's example is naked mole rats); but once you swallow those lumps, he does get most of the details right.

Furthermore, he doesn't let the science overwhelm the story. This is an examination of human social organisation, but by playing up the fact that the hive is, essentially, one big family (no prizes for guessing where George's hunt for his sister takes him) Baxter keeps the human interest front and centre. This is more personal, character-based writing than most of Baxter's other novels, and it's arguably how hard SF should work: offering speculation that rings emotionally true because it is scientifically plausible. And George Poole himself has a compelling sadness about him, a slightly lost quality, that makes an effective contrast to the warm certainty of the hive.

The story stands alone well. The Xeelee aspects in this novel are actually fairly minimal: George Poole is himself an ancestor of a significant character later in the timeline, and there's a very brief flash-forward to a fully adapted hive society tens of thousands of years hence, but that's it. George and Regina's stories, meanwhile, are resolved within the book, and there's no sense that you need to read the rest of the series to get the answers (although, like the earlier Manifold books, it seems likely that questions and themes will recur, and that the whole of Destiny's Children will be greater than the sum of its parts).

Unfortunately, the book has a big weakness, and that's the historical strand. Baxter's descriptions of Roman Britain seem uncertain, and his narrative choices are at times awkward. For example, a version of King Arthur turns up, ostensibly as a spur to Regina's half-formed ideas about society-building, but never manages to seem anything more than out of place. The result is a dull and uninspiring narrative that doesn't really feel interesting until it relocates to Rome.

Clearly not everyone feels the same; Coalescent has recieved diverse reviews, some praising the historical strand, some focusing on other aspects of the novel entirely. Cheryl Morgan criticised it for, amongst other things, neglecting questions of gender; Adam Roberts praised it for a thoughtful investigation of Catholicism. To me, it's fundamentally about the relationship between family and society.

There's no doubt that in his portrait of the hive Baxter delivers some powerful scenes--disturbingly memorable, brutally logical, and a smart counterpoint to both contemporary and ancient civilisation--and almost for those alone I think it deserved its place on the most recent Clarke Award shortlist. But the novel's resolution needs us to believe in George and Regina, and we don't; so in at least one respect, it seems to me seriously flawed. In the end, it's not as wildly imaginative as Baxter's best work, and it doesn't quite have the characters to compensate.

Personally, I think Coalescent still has significant strengths, and I look forward to the successor novel, Exultant--but I also think that perhaps it's not such a good starting point as it first appears.

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