Coalescent: A Novel Mass Market Paperback – Nov 23 2004
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Stephen Baxter's novel Coalescent explores the SF possibilities of our own evolution--and whether, like ants or naked mole rats, a human community could develop a hive mind.
In modern England, George Poole learns in mid-life that he once had a twin sister, given as an infant to The Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. The what? Poole tracks down what seems a perfectly respectable Rome-based organisation, not all that religious but with hints of underlying strangeness. Yet apparently they're not strangers. "They're family."
Sixteen centuries before, the Roman-British girl Regina lives through the final, painful passing of Roman law and order in a Britain increasingly ravaged by Saxon invasion. It's a grimly moving historical story, which even links to the legend of Arthur.
Hardened by much brutal experience, Regina is determined to protect her bloodline and her household gods through the Dark Ages, until this temporary disturbance is over. By luck, cunning and sheer ruthlessness she reaches sanctuary in Rome, where she founds an enclave that will survive into the modern era and beyond. Instinctively, Regina lays down rules that will fundamentally change "human nature" as the centuries slip by:
Ignorance is strength. Listen to your sisters. Sisters matter more than laughters.
A third narrative strand follows Lucia, a girl of the modern-day Order who sees these slogans on every wall, lives underground in the artificial light of the "Crypt" and is always surrounded by many sisters. No room is ever empty. When Lucia finds herself physically changing and becoming different from her workmates, the resulting upheaval has ripples that affect Poole, his own rediscovered sister and the world.
The lifestyle of the Order is a new quirk in mankind's evolution, alternately seductive and shocking. Baxter switches effectively between harrowing historical narrative and the slow revelation of a threat whose understated chill is reminiscent of John Wyndham's quieter menaces. Coalescent is a strong, standalone novel that opens a new SF sequence titled "Destiny's Children". --David Langford --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Known for his hard SF, Baxter (the Manifold trilogy) explores social and historical issues as well as human evolution in the first of his Destiny's Children trilogy, with mixed results. In the present, George Poole discovers that he has a twin sister who belongs to a mysterious, ancient quasi-religious order in Rome; in crumbling post-Roman Britain, Regina, founder of the order, longs to recapture the days of her girlhood, when she lived a life of stability and privilege. In alternating chapters, George and Regina each make their way to Rome. George meets his sister and begins to learn something of the order that took her in; Regina-complex, bitter, obsessive-crafts the order that lasts to George's day. Regina digs under the streets of Rome into catacombs for secure living space. George, distantly related to Regina, feels the familial pull of the women still living in the warrens underground, but when he befriends a young, pregnant member of the order, he realizes that they have evolved into a new life form, a coalescent one comprising drones working within a decentralized social order. Regina's carefully researched world never quite comes to life-Baxter tells rather than shows-and the feminist implications of a coalescent life form that exploits and alters femininity are not addressed. Still, Baxter provokes thought by plausibly creating specific circumstances that result in evolution. For now, it's unclear whether a coalescent structure is good or bad, though presumably later books will provide some resolution.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Breathtaking scope and (one can assume) historical accuracy of a decaying Roman culture. This book has value on many levels and in my case opened an addicted science fiction (and fantasy) reader to the possibilities of ancient history.
While the hive culture emerged as a central theme for exploration in subsequent novels, it was the dismay of the central character as her society declined around her that held my interest.
On many levels this story appeals and creates interest. I hope he can maintain this historical fictional content in future novels, as I for one found it quite engrossing.
The hive development was fascinating and well developed, though ever so slightly overdone. He could have left a bit more for the reader to discover, ponder and have the lights come on, particularly as he proposes future novels.
I can never play with my ant farm again and not picture the streaming of mindless, white smocked women from a hole in the ground moving off to create another hive.
Very nearly a 'must read'. Well done Mr Baxter, let's get the next one out soon!
The book is weakest with its side plot of the discovery of an alien artifact in the Kuiper belt, and the possible suggestion of detection of a photino bird. I sense that Baxter wants to ensure the threads of his Xeelee sequence are incorporated into the plot, but in this book, the first of a promised series, this thread seems gratuitious. Perhaps the following novels will expand on this backdrop.
As other reviewers have argued, the hive is a living cellular automata. Because the rules for this particular hive were created by a founder, there is the possibility of exploring other structures based on different rules, defined by different constraints. Given the space of viable possibilties, one can easily see this idea expand like another "Manifold".
In summary, this book is a solid read, which entertained this reader with an interesting theme, painted against a detailed historical backdrop. I look forward to more in the series.
Baxter also seems to implicitly use work by Richard Dawkins, in "The Selfish Gene", where Dawkins argues that organisms are just the vessels by which their genes propagate in time. For the most part, this refers to nonsentient creatures. But the most provocative implication of Dawkins' work is that we too are bound by such imperatives. The plot in this book also seems to follow this thread.
Somewhat enjoyable. Though the subplot of possible aliens in outer space seems to be quite jarring, and not well fitting, as compared to the way Baxter interleaves two narrative flows, from the present and the past.
In post Roman Britannia, Regina misses her carefree youth that ended about the time the strange lights arose in the heavens. She travels to Rome where she establishes the Order that lives and prospers under the streets of the city even to George's time Almost two millennium later George learns that he not only has a living twin, but she was given to the Order over two score ago. He treks to Rome to find a perfect hive of evolved humans that plan to expand their web beyond the Roman underground.
COALESCENT, the first book in Stephen Baxter's Destiny's Children trilogy, is an exciting science fiction tale that uses social order to propel human evolution. The story line alternates between George in the present and Regina in the past. The clever modern day tale provokes thought on evolution and social conditioning. However, Regina's world fails to materialize as it feels more like an account than a visit. Still readers will appreciate this deep tale and look forward to further debate over the pros and cons of human COALESCENT.
Most recent customer reviews
I too enjoyed reading Baxter's account of a hive mentality and how he alternated the story line between the past and present. Read morePublished on Feb. 11 2004 by Vincent Prezioso
From the boundless imagination of Stephen Baxter comes another novel from his enviable arsenal of story telling. Read morePublished on Jan. 12 2004 by David Williams
I am only rating this a four because I am reluctant to give something by Stephen Baxter a three. At his best, he is one of the best authors and everything he writes is a five star... Read morePublished on Jan. 4 2004 by C. A. Schaps