Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review: Coalescent by Stephen Baxter

This Friday, the Modern Masters group will be reading the novel Coalescent by Stephen Baxter, but I wanted to give the folks at home a brief glimpse into the inner workings of the book and get everyone warmed up for what I expect to be a very interesting discussion.

Coalescent is a book of multiple views, times, and expressions, wherein nothing is as it seems and physics and biology are walking hand in hand with the metaphysical.  Now I am sure that no few of you are wondering, what that actually means.  Well, I shall endeavor to show you in as simple a way as I can: Imagine a piece of paper and draw a dot in the center, call it Rome, then draw a series of arrows in and out, labeling them with the names of characters, now connect those lines so they loop in and out of Rome, and you have a tenuous idea of what I mean.

As for the book itself, the story starts with the death of George Poole's father in Manchester, UK, in the modern day.  George is assisted in cleaning out his father's old house by a childhood friend, Peter, who is a bit of a nutter, and in the course of their cleaning they stumble upon a picture of George and his sister standing with another girl who looks like a somewhat feminine version of George.  The discovery of his long lost twin's existence sets George off on a journey to discover the truth behind his parents' decision to send her off to a religious group called the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgina (or more simply, the Order) in Rome.  George begins his investigation in the present day, but soon finds himself looking at his family line in a whole different light, and with the help of his strange friend Peter, he makes some very startling discoveries.

Meanwhile, 1600 years prior, Regina is a young girl in the nominally Roman province of Britannia, living first with her parents, then her Grandfather along Hadrian's Wall, then the family of her former slave, then in a hardscrabble community, next with the infamous Artorius and Merlin, then, finally, in Rome where she rejoins her now aged mother and helps form the Order.  We watch as she shapes herself and her family with some very bizarre and crazy notions that make them better at survival, and then we witness the actions of the Order through the ages.

Back in the present, we see another side of things, as we follow the narrative of several characters from the Order, and learn what strange things this secretive group has really been getting p to over the past millennium and a half.  Lucia, an oddity among the sisters of the Order, has gone through puberty and is now capable if bearing children.  Her coming of age and the machinations of this clannish little enclave encapsulate the most powerful sections of a book that has already seen more than its fair share of drama, tragedy, and oddities.

Yet in the future, we find out that humanity is locked in some sort of titanic struggle in space, a struggle that is hinted at early on in the ramblings of wacky pseudo-scientist Peter McLaughlin.  We see the eventual evolution of the Order, or the Coalescents as Peter nicknames them, as well as the baseline human society.  Obviously this is a concept and subject explored at greater length in the ensuing books of the series.

THAC0: 8
Well written, with a massively diverse cast from various periods in history, Coalescent broaches some interesting concepts and pushes the envelope of Sociology.  The only real downside is that you have to have a lot of patience to wade through the incredibly slow moving beginning of the book to get to the wonderful and intriguing sections further in, much like the Hive later in the novel.

No comments: