Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Coalescent - Stephen Baxter

Coalescent is the first in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Destiny’s Children’ series.

The book takes place, broadly in two temporal settings  - our modern era, and the start of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The modern setting is instantly familiar in its depiction of a grey, tired Britain, a place of semi-detached houses, corporate double=speak and quiet desperation. Rome is shown off as well, a place steeped in its own history, and perhaps too defined by the past. Scenes there have a certain melancholy floating through them, the reader invited to consider the shattered remnants of implied glories from another era. Still, Baxter gives us a Rome thrumming with life, crowds surfacing around an embattled Colosseum, a dry heat beating down as inhabitants go about their business within the bones of an Empire.

In contrast, the sections set during the decline of the Empire feel  equally vivid, but with a pervasive feel of sliding into chaos. Baxter shows us the Roman world as it begins to fall apart, examining the stresses that collapse the system, the struggles to rebuild it, and the way that those struggles translate into success or failure. He’s clearly done his research – his Roman Britain strides confidently off the page, drawing the reader in with a detailed authenticity that makes the time period feel quite real (possibly more so than the modern segments!). There’s a breadth of knowledge on display here, used to craft a living, breathing world. I might quibble with some of the interpretations, but broadly speaking, the society as drawn feels very real – and, on the brink of systemic failure, often terribly so.

There’s some great characters on display too. Baxter has often taken the long view with his protagonists, and we see that here with Regina, a young Roman girl, who grows over the text into a focused and determined woman, her personal ascension being mirrored by societal decline. Regina is by turns spoiled, intelligent, driven, coolly analytical and authoritative. Watching her fill in her conceptual framework, decide her goal and push forward with it is a delight, even if the consequences may not be quite what she expects. Still, she feels like a person by the end of the text, though one somewhat remote from others . Her journey from early adolescence through to adulthood and beyond is carefully crafted, and the flaws in her character feel like they could be resident in any of us. If Regina isn’t entirely normal, if her trauma shapes her, then she’s no less damaged than the rest of us, and an absolutely fascinating lens into the collapse of her society.

George Poole, the protagonist of the more modern sequences, is a tired man of middle age, his mental landscape one of regret, missed opportunity, and crushing routine.  He slowly builds himself something different over the course of the text Poole’s reflective examination of the needs of youth, and the settled nature of middle age act as a solid contrast to Regina’s  more active segments. Poole is a man settled in himself, and in being so, he reaches out to others in order to change them, help them, or to allow external change to affect him. He’s a quiet, unassuming, intelligent man – and feels quietly human, too.

The plot…well, it sprawls across time and space. Regina slowly begins to construct an edifice to ensure the survival of her family, and George, an extended part of that family, comes into contact with, and begins to investigate that edifice. There’s a slow burn here, but it pays off in the end, with some tense action scenes and a sense of rising stakes. Being Baxter, there’s also opportunities to implicitly and explicitly ask big questions – what is humanity, where is it going, how can it be shaped, will there be long term effects, etc. It’s a truly grand scope, snaking through the more personal narrative and cunningly informing the reader.

Is it worth reading? I’d say so. It’s a cerebral piece, to be sure, and takes a little while to get going. But there’s some great ideas on display, in a marvellously drawn world, so if you don’t mind spending the time, it’ll be worth your while to pick it up. 

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