Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Coalescent - Stephen Baxter

   2004; 527 pages.  Book #1 (out of 4) in the Destiny’s Children series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Drama; Mystery; a smidgen of Science Fiction.  Laurels: Nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2004.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s a somber occasion for George Poole.  His father has just died, and he’s the only one in the family left in England to return home and see to the estate.  Not that there’s much of an inheritance to split with the one other living relative, his older sister, Gina, who’s happily married and raising a family way over in Florida.

    But at least his boyhood chum, Peter McLachlan, is around to help go through dad’s few earthly possessions.  Peter’s kind of a weirdo, being heavily into SETI and other far-out groups who look for anomalies in outer space, to say nothing of extraterrestrials.  But it’ll be good to have someone there to help dispose of the family keepsakes.

    So it is quite to George’s surprise to learn he has a sister he’s never heard about.  A twin sister, no less.  Taken away (or more accurately, given away) soon after birth, and placed in some sort of religious order in Rome.

    Say, wasn’t there some sort of family legend about one of George’s many-times-great-grandmother (and wasn’t her name Regina?) also being involved with a religious order?  But that was 15 centuries ago, back in the days right after the Roman Legions abandoned England.  Surely there’s no connection, right?


What’s To Like...
    Coalescent is yet another ambitious effort by Stephen Baxter, with four storylines and genres involving untold millennia cleverly interwoven into an overarching Poole family saga.  There’s a present-day story, one of Intrigue, that follows George’s efforts to locate his long-lost twin sister. There’s a Historical Fiction account of the legendary Regina.  There’s a Drama plotline involving a girl named Lucia, who wants out of her present-day situation in Rome.  And late in the novel, there’s a very small Science Fiction thread that takes place far in the future. 

    Personally, my favorite thread was Regina’s story, as all of Western Europe, and England especially, fall into the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Stephen Baxter’s attention to detail in this is impressive, and I liked that he went with gritty realism, as opposed to some King Arthur type of fantasy tale. I enjoyed learning about the “Wall Walk”, some nominal contact with Druids, and even a brief mention of an ancient religion near and dear to my heart – Mithraism.

    Life was tough in those first years after the fall of Rome.  So if frequent cussing isn’t your cup of tea, or you find things like rape, oral sex, slavery, homosexuality, and ritual procreation offensive, you might want to skip this book.

    The unifying theme to the book is Baxter’s hypothesis that societies – be they insects, mammals, or even humans – when placed in extremely stressful and existence-threatening conditions, will adapt a “hive mentality”, where everyone has a predetermined role that needs no explaining, and does it without fail or question.  The individual members of such a society won’t even be aware of this collective mentality, they will just naturally coalesce into it, hence the book’s title.  The three favorite maxims within the Order are “Ignorance is Strength”; “Listen to your Sisters”, and (most importantly) “Sisters matter more than Daughters”.

    The ending ties these disparate storylines together, with a twist or two to keep you on your toes.  This is a standalone novel, but several loose threads remain afterward (most notably, the Kuiper Belt Anomaly), which presumably pave the way for the sequel and the rest of the series.

 Kewlest New Word...
Eusocial (adj.) : of an animal species (usually insects) showing an advanced level of social organization, in which a single female or caste produces the offspring and non-reproductive individual cooperate in caring for the young.
Others : Extirpating (v.); Intaglio (n.).

    Rosa leaned forward and said softly, “Mamma- Mamma-“
    Maria looked up blearily, her eyes rheumy grey pebbles.  “What, what?  Who’s that?  Oh, it’s you, Rosa Poole.”  She glanced down at her book irritably, tried to focus, then closed the book with a sigh.  “Oh, never mind.  I always thought old age would at least give me time to read.  But by the time I’ve got to the bottom of the page I’ve forgotten what was at the top …”  She leered at Lucia, showing a toothless mouth.  “What an irony – eh?”  (pg. 232)

    “No Renaissance.  There would have been no need for it.  But there would have been none of the famous Anglo-Saxon tradition of individual liberty and self-determination.  No Magna Carta, no parliaments.  If the Romans had gone to the Americas they wouldn’t have practiced genocide against the natives, as we did.  That wasn’t the Roman way.  They’d have assimilated, acculturated, built their aqueducts and bathhouses and roads, the apparatus of their civilizing system.  The indigenous nations, in North and South America, would have survived as new Roman provinces.  It would have a richer world, maybe more advanced in some ways.”
    “But no Declaration of Independence.  And no abolition of slavery, either.”  (pg. 416)

 “Honesty doesn’t excuse ignorance.  But it helps.”  (pg. 504)
    For all its lofty aspirations, Coalescent doesn’t quite …um… coalesce into a smooth, seamless story.  First and foremost, the pacing is uneven.  The initial storyline, George’s search for his sister, moves much too slow, and takes a hundred+ page sabbatical in the middle of the book while waiting for the Lucia thread to catch up.  The Regina storyline ends early – well, she had to die sometime – and is sustained only by some sparse, interesting, but ultimately unrelated temporal updates about the Order’s activities.  And the futuristic plotline is woefully short, sparsely developed, and seems to exist only to give a glimpse of the sequels.

    To boot, there simply isn’t much Science Fiction here, and those who read Stephen Baxter novels for that genre are going to be disappointed.  OTOH, those, like me, whose favorite Baxter book is Evolution (reviewed here) will find one or more story threads in this book to be quite interesting.

    These would be some serious drawbacks, if it were not for Stephen Baxter being one heckuva an accomplished writer.  Hey, he kept me interested in the Drama storyline, and that’s not a genre that I'm particularly fond of.

    Overall, I found Coalescent to be a good, but not great effort by Baxter.  This may change depending of how well I like the sequel, Exultant, which sits within my Kindle, waiting to be read.

    8 Stars.  Add ½ star if the phrase “Kuiper Belt Anomaly” piques your science-fiction interest.  I have a feeling it plays an integral part in the rest of the books in this series.

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