Reviews: Stephen Baxter
Destinys Children Book One
Stephen Baxter - Gollancz ISBN 0-575-07424-8
Sisters matter more than daughters
Ignorance is strength
Listen to your sisters
is a category of science romance out there, running parallel to science
fiction. Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) a mathematician is
one and Stephen Baxter is another. Putting the science back in fiction
and taking us along with it into extraordinary scenarios with fantastic
sweeps across history.
I'd previously come across Stephen Baxter when reading Reality Dust
- pure but very alternative and thoughtful science fiction. It was accompanied
by an another long short story in the Futures
compendium by Peter F Hamilton called 'Watching Trees Grow'.
An amazing detective story spanning generations, about a Britain that
has never left the Roman Empire. The Empire, now nearly thousand years
old never vanished or collapsed, but redoubled its strength and
held on, shaping all of history forever. But it's Stephen Baxter who
has reached prominence with an extraordinary output of very intelligent
science fiction and non-fiction too, with his engrossing book which
traces the path not yet taken in Deep Future.
In Coalescent Baxter takes a different tack to Peter Hamilton.
He sticks to reality. Rome collapses, a slow terrible implosion over
hundreds of years as the Barbarians crush the life out of her. He now
deals in historical fact. Its Britain where Rome chooses to leave
first, needing soldiers to defend Rome itself and Gaul. The population,
led from Rome, is used to almost five hundred years of rule of law and
prosperity. It cannot adjust, basic craftsmen skills seem to vanish,
crime soars, most cannot believe the Emperor wont be back. Order
will be restored soon they hope. But this not science fiction; Baxter
uses history to chart a novel that is quite wonderful in many respects,
doing something that has long been needed and probably should become
a textbook for all high schools across the land.
This is a story of a young girl Regina, a Roman British girl living
in a villa with a lavish lifestyle and slaves who is suddenly abandoned
by her mother Julia after her father accidentally kills himself. Regina
is saved from ruin by her Grandfather, an old soldier and they flee
to the safety of the wall. Reginas story is central to this book,
told over her lifespan and more, alternating with a more contemporary
story of one George Poole searching for his long lost twin sister in
It is Reginas story and the story of Britain suddenly engulfed
by marauding Saxons and tribal chieftans trying to fill the gap that
the absence of Roman garrisons left behind.
The disintegration of Romano Britain is a huge hole in the teaching
of history in schools. We know they came, what they did, when they left,
but then history glazes over and becomes the Dark Ages.
Baxter shines a very bright light indeed on those years and with subtle
weaving entangles the adult Regina and her daughter Brica with the forever
battling Artorius (Authur) and his mystic Myrddin (Merlin).
Baxter is no romantic. This shambolic, receding, violent Britain is
full of rapists and killers and Regina has to learn to survive with
cunning. Everything is crumbling. Eventually she finds a way to get
herself and her reluctant daughter to Rome ostensibly to find
her mother, but also to seek revenge for the man who raped her when
she was a beautiful seventeen and left her with child.
The sub-story of George Poole and his search for his sister is consumed
by the growing story of The Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen
of Virgins. What is the connection between this secret convent
in Rome and Reginas story some sixteen centuries ago? Who is the
mysterious Peter, friend of George's father who seems to appear in George's
life without warning. What does he want from George?
Baxter has a vision and everything always comes back to Rome. Our modern
history began there and it is still entwined in modern Europe. Indeed
as I write this review, the Prime Minister of Italy is wrapping up six
months of Presidency of Europe...and the President of Europe is in fact
Romano Prodi. A lot of history between this and Reginas tough
ordeal to escape the creeping anarchy of fifth century Britain.
If you have ever asked yourself what happened to Britain when the Romans
left, Coalescent wades in and fills the gap with wonderful, knowledgeable
detail and something in you clicks. It must have been very much like
this. Terrible, frightening, and you would have wanted to leave, follow
the Romans, every night wish for them to come back and restore order,
make the lights glow, water flow, mint the coins, make life work. But
they had gone forever and yes, the dark ages came.
There is more, fantastic speculations, a young girl pregnant seeking
freedom from a cult in Rome, the consequences of Reginas legacy,
the very future of mankind (or should that be womankind?) but the solid
work here is recreating ancient Roman Britain and making everyone in
it wholly believable.
© Sam North -December 18th 2003
all rights reserved