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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter. New York: Del Rey, 2003. ISBN: 0-345-45785-4

The only previous work by Stephen Baxter which I've read, so far as I can recall, are the three novels in his Manifold series, titled Time (1999), Space (2000) and Origin (2001). I was surprised that I apparently read these back before I started this blog, back not too long after they were published apparently, as they stuck in my memory quite clearly. They struck me as a kind of improbable combination of hard science fiction on the one hand with the grand sweep of space opera at its most grandiose on the other.

Coalescent, the first in Baxter's new Destiny's Children trilogy, is quite different. The science fiction aspect of the story is not at all evident for much of the book, and is only revealed in its full flower in the last few pages. Even though the book begins with an obviously alien artifact having been discovered out in the far reaches of the solar system, the discovery merely serves as a foil for the action that follows, and is never exploited in any significant way.

Instead, we are treated to alternating stories, one about a modern computer programmer going through a mid-life crisis brought on by the discovery, after his father's death, of a twin sister he never knew he had, given up by his parents to a strange, cult-like organization in Rome, called the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins.

The other story tells of a woman born to a Roman style family in Great Britain during the period when Rome's influence is ending, and the Anglo-Saxons are invading. This story actually turns out to be an Arthurian romance of sorts, as the heroine becomes Arthur's consort for a time, before she travels to Rome and assists with the founding of the Order.

So where is this all leading? To nothing less than the emergence, or coalescence (as the book's title implies), of a new type of humanity. An old scifi concept, here treated with sufficient novelty, and with a suitably entertaining storyline for all but the most jaded of sf readers.

It will be interesting to see what Baxter has managed to create in the follow-up novels, Exultant (2004) and Transcendent (scheduled for a Nov. 2005 release). Coalescent is recommended reading for most science fiction fans.

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