Well, long-awaited by me
, if not by anyone else. This is, after all, the book I named my journal after
is unmistakeably a Stephen Baxter novel, but it's not the sort of novel you expect Stephen Baxter to write. The material is as big and bold as ever - this is a novel concerned with civilisation and society, order and chaos, as viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology - but the focus is more intense than usual. This is a novel about the role of the group and the role of the individual. This is a novel about family. Specifically, the Poole family.
Present-day Britain: Returning to Manchester after his father's death, our gentleman-narrator George Poole stumbles across evidence of a sister he never knew he had, and starts searching for her.
Ancient Britain: As the Roman Empire fails, Regina - George's distant ancestor - grows up. Travelling across the land she lives through a slow apocalypse, a total collapse of civilisation. She begins searching for a way to protect her family, forever.
Between these two tales lies the story of Coalescent
. Unfortunately, at least to begin with, the two strands are not equally effective. Baxter's gift for capturing our modern world, on the cusp of the future, is considerable, but he seems unsure of himself when detailing Roman Britain. The style wobbles between a presentation of Roman life as though it were contemporary, and a description of that life as a historical context. Combined with a misjuged foray into the presentation of 'the truth behind the myth' (and no prizes for guessing which
myth), the result is that the first half of this strand is often dull and uninspiring. We're told the Empire is falling, but we never feel
Thankfully, when the historical strand moves to Rome things improve dramatically. George Poole also relocates to the Italian capital, and the juxtaposition of the two viewpoints - together with the introduction of a third, native voice - provides a compelling portrait of the city. Not so much a portrait of Rome as a place, but of Rome as a society, Rome as a concept. Rome as a dream - and that's the sort of material with which Baxter is much more comfortable.
It doesn't have nearly the same scope (little could), but thematically it's clear that Coalescent
is a natural successor to his last novel, Evolution
. It's an outlandish variation on the same ideas. It's also a hard-SF updating of an old pulp standby: The hive mind. What do genetics and sociobiology tell us a hive would really
be like? How and why would it happen? The answers are brutally logical, yet not what most people would expect[*], and provide a powerful contrast to the portrait of contemporary civilisation.
For all that it delivers the requisite imaginative kick, however, it is a flawed novel. The early parts of the Roman story are mainly responsible. Coalescent
is, as I said, by necessity a human story; much that happens later turns on our empathy with Regina, and Baxter's powers of characterisation are not quite up to the task. If, like me, you already appreciate Baxter then this probably won't bother you overmuch, but it's not a book I can recommend to everyone.
[*] Yes, Tom, anyone with a decent knowledge of genetics and biology could make a decent stab at it. That, sadly, is not 'most people'...