Coalescent by Stephen Baxter
Del Rey /Ballantine/ Random House HCVR: ISBN 0345457854 PubDate: 12/01/03
Review by Samuel Lubell
496 pgs. List price $ 25.95
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Stephen Baxter is known for writing hard science fiction with the emphasis on the science, chock full of speculations on physics and the laws of space and time. So Coalescent seems a bit of a departure for him as a writer since it reads almost like a mainstream novel with about half of the chapters being straightforward historical fiction (albeit one in which King Arthur makes an appearance). The science in this novel is that of sociology (or maybe organizational theory) with a little bit of evolutionary biology thrown into the mix.
The novel begins with the death of George Poole's father and the discovery of a photograph showing George as a toddler with an unknown twin sister. This sparks a midlife crisis for George, who, dissatisfied with his current job and separated from his wife, becomes obsessed with finding his sister. He learns that his family, then very poor, gave his sister Rosa up to an obscure religious order with strange connections to his family - the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. Joining him in this search is a former school friend, Peter McLachlan, a science nerd who appears to have wandered in from a different Baxter novel. Peter is involved with an online SETI group and prone to paranoid speculations on why so much of the universe is composed of dark matter. Together, they find out that the rder was interested in George's sister because his family are descended from the founder of the order, Regina, who lived in Britain during the start of the fall of Rome, when the empire lost its toehold on that island.
The first-person narrative of George's investigations alternates with the story of Regina growing up a spoiled daughter of a wealthy Roman family in Britain, whose status becomes more and more impoverished as the novel goes on until she and the family of her former slave have to teach themselves farming and all the skills necessary for survival. Baxter does an excellent job with her character, undoubtedly the most developed in the novel, as she moves from spoiled daughter, to rebellious adolescent, to leader of her people, to queen (to war leader Artorius of Caml fort), to cold and calculating religious leader. Baxter paints a fascinating picture of what life was like after the fall of civilization, with Regina knowing that a better life exists and thinking of that as normal with the current conditions something to be survived until normality returns. (There are some wonderful passages comparing the wonders of civilization with the pitiful products her town's workshops can do.) And ultimately, Regina is willing to do whatever it takes for the survival of her family's bloodline, even pimp her daughter's body in exchange for passage to Rome.
Once in Rome she finds her own mother, who had become part of the remnants of the pre-Christian Vestal Virgins, and through sheer force of will and instinct, forges them into a religious order based on three rules: "Sisters matter more than daughters" (because only a few are allowed to breed so that the whole group can be one family of sisters rather than separate groups of family lines), the Orwellian "Ignorance is strength" (because the structures of the group allow it to survive), and "Listen to your sisters" (so that peer pressure keeps everyone in line.)
Finally, halfway through the book, a third plotline evolves. Rosa, who has become influential in the Order, chooses 14-year-old Lucia, to become one of the mothers. This ultimately leads to Lucia meeting an American in Rome and choosing to run away from the order. Naturally, they encounter George and Peter and reveal some of the biological secrets of the order that leads Peter to suspect that the Order has evolved into a whole new species. I had the most trouble with this plotline. In many ways Lucia behaves more like a stranger to the Order than someone who had grown up there. For instance, she is surprised that her baby only takes three months to gestate since she saw on the Internet that it normally takes nine. And if the smell, warmth, and comfort of the Hive is so seductive that even George is tempted to join, why is she so rebellious? Also, neither Lucia nor Rosa act like drones. It is hard to see how a system that produces a Lucia could remain as stable as the one described here. As to the science, I find it very hard to believe that evolution works as quickly as it does in this novel (and along seemingly Lamarkian lines at that) to cause groups to diverge especially since the hive uses males from outside and outsiders like George's sister join the hive so it is not completely isolated.
Science aside, I found this an interesting novel of the "secret history" variety. Putting the Hive in Rome, the center of much of history, rather than a hidden backwater, was an interesting choice of Baxter's that worked to provide contrast - the center of western civilization hiding an alternative civilization beneath it. The Hive itself is dedicated to survival. It was created out of Regina's sense that it was easy for civilization to fall so it evolved into a system independent of civilization and even of the individual humans that comprise it.
The back of the book describes it as first of a series, Destiny's Children. But it is hard to see where this plotline could go as the Hive, at least as shown in this book, is essentially a dead-end for humanity that has no drive for expansion (never spreading beyond Rome in 2000 years) nor any goal beyond survival. I suspect that the next book will not simply pick up where this one ended but will instead present a different course of evolution for mankind.
Readers who have avoided books by Stephen Baxter because of the
stereotype that Science Fiction written by scientists have better science
than fiction should certainly give Coalescent a try. This might also be a
good book to give fans of historical or even mainstream fiction a taste of
science fictional speculation.