April 2004

Hilary Leon

fiction

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter

I should mention from the start that I reserve a particular loathing for science fiction novels that open with a chapter like that of Stephen Baxter’s Coalescent. The reader can discern only the following: that the narrator has completed the novel’s journey and is speaking from the future, and that he’s unable to talk about it without sounding enigmatic to the point of incoherence. Also, he feels it necessary to make ponderous statements such as, “How strange that my quest to find my own family would lead me to such mysteries, and would begin and end in death.” Thanks for sharing that bit of wisdom, friend.

On the other hand, one I got past page five, the book improved markedly. Coalescent tells two distinct but intertwined stories. One is set in near-future (or slightly altered present-day) Britain. This thread follows the narrator, George Poole, in his increasingly obsessive search for his twin sister, who was sent away from the family before his earliest memories. The other reaches back across the centuries to the time of Roman-ruled Britain and Poole’s distant ancestor, Regina, who witnesses the fall of the Roman Empire and determines to found a society that will outlast it.

Baxter’s prose is deeply, resonantly British, from his choice of expressions to his pacing and tone. This is particularly true in the modern sections of the book, when the world is filtered through Poole’s sardonic view. In his efforts to track the fate of his twin sister, George flies to the States to interview his estranged elder sister, then on to Rome. He is dogged in his quest by Peter McLachlan, a childhood acquaintance with bizarre hobbies -- mostly involving the internet and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- and an inexplicable fascination with Poole’s family secret.

Unfortunately, tantalizing though this whole storyline might be, Poole remains a dull and unlikable fellow throughout. He serves primarily as a vehicle through which the reader discovers the mysterious Order that forms the heart of the novel. The historical chapters of the book ring truer and captured my attention much more fully than Poole’s modern-day struggles. I had no trouble immersing myself in Baxter’s richly detailed ancient landscape, and in the lives of Regina and her companions. Here lies all the nuance and depth that is missing in Poole and McLachlan, and here is the full realization of the mystery that falls strangely flat in the modern chapters. While on firm ground building the history of the Order, Baxter struggles to bring his story to fruition in the present day, and it shows.

Despite these complaints, I plowed through Coalescent in a few days, utterly absorbed. Baxter spins a remarkable yarn, and I wish that he could have sustained it until the end of the novel. As this is the first in a planned trilogy, perhaps the problem is in focusing too much on the narrative arc of the series, and too little on an intelligent and satisfying climax to the story at hand. Still, for anyone with an interest in historical fiction and truly impressive female characters, Regina’s story is well worth the read.

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter
Del Rey
ISBN: 0345457854
496 Pages