COALESCENT (Destiny's Children Book One), by Stephen Baxter
Gollancz, 2003, £17.99, 473pp
ISBN 0-575-07424-8

This reviewed first appeared in The Alien Online

See also my reviews of Exultant (Destiny's Children Book Two), Deep Future and Mayflower II

You might also like to read my (very) short story, "Tell Stephen Baxter Not To Worry", published in Matrix a while back.

This isn’t quite a standard Stephen Baxter novel but it isn’t too far removed from one (if there is such a beast). Mr Baxter seems to produce novels at a pace only bettered by that grand old dame of romantic fiction, Dame Barbara Cartland. And Dame Barbara Cartland is dead. Fortunately, not only is Stephen Baxter alive but his novels are decidedly heavier than anything Dame Babs ever produced in terms of both weight and content. Coalescent weighs in at a light-heavy-weight (for him) of just under 500 pages, but this is merely first part of the trilogy.

The first thing I will say about the book itself is that I think it could – and probably should – have been significantly shorter. The second thing I’ll say is that despite that Coalescent still makes for an educational and entertaining read.

Let me explain...

Coalescent begins in two places: one is roughly now, here in Britain, where George Poole, a rather lonely middle-aged underachiever has just lost his father, who he last saw some years ago. Sorting through his father’s affairs in the old family home he discovers that he has a sister whom he has never even heard mentioned. The sister was sent to Rome when very young to be raised by some kind of sect called the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins.

The second story begins, once again, here in the UK but around 500AD, just after the Roman Empire has abandoned our little island, forced out by ever-increasing barbarian incursions and poor governance on the continent. The tight little networks of Roman civilisation are unravelling rapidly and the country is facing catastrophe. In the midst of all this, a very young Roman-Britain girl called Regina tries (and mostly fails) to understand what is happening around her. Her story continues throughout most of Coalescent as she fights to survive amidst the collapse of civilisation, struggling to build a safe haven for herself and her family. All of which eventually leads to something rather odd.

Meanwhile in George Poole’s world the search for his long-lost sister is turning out to be far more difficult than he had imagined. There’s a strange old story in George’s family about how they can trace their ancestors back to a Roman woman called Regina who lived in Britain some 1,500 years ago, and how she somehow returned to Rome. Can this be the same Regina…? I wonder...

Rather like Dan Simmons’ recent Ilium, I’m puzzled to report that it is the sequences set in the past that work best in Coalescent. There’s an ominous feeling of creeping insecurity, of rising floodwaters, not to mention the fact that Mr Baxter has obviously done his research in order to evoke a world long-gone but populated with familiar human beings with familiar worries. The parallels drawn between the brittleness of the Roman Empire and our own modern civilisation are unsettling, too, in the way they quietly but strikingly compare the fall of the Empire to a modern nuclear holocaust and the helplessness of ‘civilised’ people in such a situation. I’m going out to stockpile some tins and fresh water first thing tomorrow!

The modern sections of Coalescent seem a little anaemic – even petty – by comparison. George Poole is a very ordinary guy, not terribly sympathetic or dynamic and, more importantly, lacking any real passion – he’s not a character I ever felt I could engage with except as a motor to drive the story on. It is perhaps fortunate, then, that the majority (by a small margin) of Coalescent takes place in the distant past. Although the denouement is in the present the point of the story is in the past, i.e. how such a, ahem, thing could happen, how somebody could be driven to fashion something so odd – not to mention how simple it could apparently be according to the fascinating new(-ish) studies of ‘emergence’.

Sorry to be so evasive, but the gradual uncovering of what Regina has created is so carefully and gradually done that I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I’m still not sure I quite believe it’s possible, but that’s because some of the science behind it seems a little unlikely to me – which is odd because ‘the science’ is normally a very, very strong point of Baxter’s books.

The writing is as good as it ever was, which is to say pretty damn good: nothing flashy or showy but quiet, reliable and easily readable – seductively readable I’m tempted to say. Something I’ve noticed about Baxter’s writing in the past is that you don’t notice how easy it glides by, how it securely underpins the story, so that even 473 pages seem like significantly less. Such an effect takes no small amount of skill and experience, and Baxter seems to manage it every time.

OK, now, two things I didn’t like in Coalescent: firstly, something called the Kuiper Anomaly – a large, unknown, artificial object apparently detected in the darkest inky depths of our solar system. This fairly important discovery is mentioned four or five times in the background of George’s story and then vanishes. So why put it in there at all? Unless, that is, it’s going to feature in the second or third books of the trilogy, an explanation which might also explain my second dislike: George’s old childhood friend Peter, whom fate (except, of course, that this is a novel, there is no fate…) has miraculously chosen to link up with a shadowy group of internet science geeks who know all sorts of important stuff no one else seems to know. Peter reveals a little too much, a little too conveniently (‘Tell me, Professor…’), even stepping in as a most unsatisfactory deus ex machina towards the end. His divulgence of pretty outlandish theories might be a crude foreshadowing of important events in parts two and/or three of Destiny’s Children, but even so it’s no reason for them to appear like annoying internet pop-up ads as they do here.

If Coalescent had been written by almost anyone but Stephen Baxter it would probably have ended up as a below-average techno-thriller. Thanks to Baxter’s ever-growing skill as a writer that isn’t the case here. Coalescent isn’t bad at all – I couldn’t help tearing through the whole thing in just a couple of days – but it feels somehow in need of a polish, of tightening up, and then it would be a very much faster-moving beast altogether, which for a conspiracy novel (and this is a conspiracy novel, albeit a very unconventional one) is something of a must.

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