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Coalescent (2004)

Coalescent (2004)
3.74 of 5 Votes: 2
0345457862 (ISBN13: 9780345457868)
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Coalescent (2004)
Coalescent (2004)

About book: This is not just one book, but loosely connected, two and a bit – a historical novel, a biological thriller and a science fiction short story – under one cover.The historical novel is about a girl growing up in Britain in the 5th century A.D., while the Roman rule disintegrates. Now, I am not a fan of historical novels – when I’ve tried to read them a couple of times before, I’ve been disappointed by how modern the characters’ thinking was. And if I want to know about history, I’d rather read a popular history book. However, this novel did not contradict anything I’ve read about the Roman period and, in fact, added a lot of details to the picture I’ve had before. Moreover, the narrative seemed to be as real as any “true story based” fiction.This “reality” or “believability” is part of Stephen Baker’s trademark – anybody who has ever lived in Edinburgh and wanted to brush up on their geology should try reading another of his Sci-Fi books, Moonseed, and you will never look at Arthur’s Seat with the same eyes.But I digress, back to Coalescent.The biological thriller, set in a near future, is a Dan Brown-escue (in a good way) story about a man looking for his long-lost sister and discovering a Puissant Monastic Order led conspiracy. The most interesting detail is that at the heart of the conspiracy is biology with some emergent theory thrown in. The motto of the Order is: Sisters matter more than daughters. Ignorance is strength. Listen to your sisters.The first slogan struck me as being very much in line with an idea I’ve encountered in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene“, that while sisters are the closest relatives, because they share the most genetic material, their daughters’ genotype is “diluted” by the sexual partner’s genes. Therefore, for a selfish gene inside an organism it would be more logical to encourage your mother to have more children, than for the organism to reproduce. However, Stephen Baxter has replied to my letter that:“…I’d read Dawkins, but the main influence on the biology in the book was the work of EO Wilson and his collaborators on eusociality in the insects.”To my shame I did not know who E. O. Wilson was, so I did a little reading and discovered that he is an entomologist, specializing in the study of social insects. In his popular works (one of them recently reviewed on Bitesize Bio) he argues that humans have “eu-” (meaning true) social capabilities, including specialization. Baxter did a brilliant job extrapolating this into fiction with very entertaining and chilling results.The science fiction story describes a very distant future, where a eusocial human society has reached a logical endgame. Unfortunately my professional disbelief, suspended for the past and present stories, crushed down on me in the end. It’s been pointed out that the problem with O. E. Wilson’s ideas is that he mechanically transfers traits found in insects to a completely different order – mammals. And even remembering about eusocial naked mole rats, it’s hard for me to believe that any amount of selective pressure in a microevolution timeframe on the un-engineered H.sapient genome can result in a two-week pregnancy or macroevolution changes – spermatheca or truly specialized ‘drones’.Moreover, the Order practices insemination by close relatives to keep the genetic make up undiluted. In practice this would lead to inbreeding. According to the current estimate each person has about 6 new genetic mutations, which during reproduction are usually compensated by the normal copy of the gene from the mate. Selecting a close relative as a mate greatly increases chance of the second defective copy of the same gene and a hereditary disease as a result. The story of House of Habsburgs is a good example of inbreeding, which resulted its' decline and extinction.But despite all this, I think that from a biologist’s point of view Coalescent is one of the most original science fiction books I’ve ever read and I would not hesitate in recommending it. A pity that I cannot say the same about the sequels, Transcendent and Respledent - they are getting progressively worse.Have you read Coalescent? What did you think?The review had been first published at

First of all, the back cover info is a trifle misleading, which is a shame because the real story is just as good and absorbing as the cover hype. The book weaves together three narratives: George Poole's first person mystery as he searches for his lost sister; the historical fiction 5th Century exploits of one of his ancestors Regina, who lives through the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, moves to Rome, and founds the Order; and the modern SF story of Lucia, one of the members of the Order. Of the three, I found George's story to be the weakest. He is basically a foil for introducing the other two and a stand-in for the reader; someone to whom things can be explained rather than an active agent. As the book progressed I actually became a little impatient with the George story and always looked forward to the next installments of Regina and Lucia.The book is a fascinating meld of science fiction and historical fiction. Baxter does a great job showing how the withdrawal of Rome from Britain resulted in the rapid decline of cities, withering of trade, decline of population and the loss of education and skills; in other words, the rapid onset of the Dark Ages in just a couple of generations. King Arthur makes an appearance--as two different characters that are frequently cited as sources for the legend--as well as Merlin. Baxter also does a credible job of creating the Order, giving it a sound basis in science and biology, and evolving it through 1500 years to the semblance of a hive. Although there is no dominant queen and they don't "plan" an invasion of the rest of earth, as trumpeted in the back matter.I do have a nit to pick. Baxter has a penchant for punning names. In another book I reviewed, his rogue protagonist was Malenfant (bad child in French.) In this one, the founding mother of the Order is Regina (queen.) He also named some secondary characters after historical figures that lived in those times. The fictional ones had nothing to do with the historical characters, so I found it jarring whenever they appeared. There are plenty of names that don't carry any associations, which could have easily been used. Naming is a tricky thing and there is nothing wrong with using a name to reinforce a character, but if it pulls the reader out of the story, it's a distraction.To summarize, I enjoyed the book. The writing is straight-forward, the characters interesting, the plot unique. Baxter is a deep thinker who sprinkles his narrative with discussions of social behavior, philosophy, morals, and science. I'd recommend this book to both the SF and HF communities.
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There is a big spoiler ahead. It's not fully revealed until late in the book, but it is also revealed on the dust jacket, and so maybe it isn't such a big spoiler after all.This is an engaging novel with interesting ideas, but they come across pretty heavy-handed in the last few chapters, where a long litany of reasons the Coalescents really, truly are a hive are presented as boring conversations between George and Peter.One of the things I like best about Baxter's writing is when he takes some fantastic hypothesis, and then relentlessly draws the most natural and logical inferences from that idea. Here, I felt like he started with where he wanted to end up and maybe overcompensated in trying to convince the reader it was believable.Despite my complaints, this is worth reading. It is also possible that future installments in the series will cause me to improve my favorite quote: "Childhood is so long when you live it, but so brief when you look at it from outside."
Many years ago, I remember Mark Plummer declaring that Stephen Baxter would be a good author to collect. What Mark clearly had not taken into account was the need for a very large room to hold such a collection. It’s not just that Baxter is prolific – 39 novels and 9 collections in 22 years – but also that most of his books are also huge. Coalescent – the first in a trilogy, natch, called Destiny’s Children – is one of these huge novels: the Gollancz hardback is 473 pages long. There are two main narratives, one set in Ancient Britain after the Romans have left, and one in the present-day. The former provides the historical context for the climax of the latter. George Poole’s father has died, and he has sort out the estate. He discovers that his father regularly sent money to a religious order in Rome, and that he has a sister in that order. So he travels to Rome to learn more. In fifth-century Britain, a young girl, Regina, is sent north to Hadrian’s Wall to stay with her grandfather after the death of her wealthy father. As it becomes clear that Rome has no interest in, or is incapable of, returning to Britain, things start to fall apart. Regina’s narrative shows how she grows up and survives in a Britain falling apart, before she eventually takes ship for Rome and forms the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. Poole, meanwhile, through an old school friend who is now a conspiracy nut, discovers that there is more to the Order than appears. It is, in fact, an all-female Hellstrom’s Hive living in an ancient labyrinth under the streets of Rome. The novel abruptly jumps into the far future and describes an attack on a human hive by members of another human civilisation. Baxter has done this before, notably in Titan, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s a useful technique. Mind you, Coalescent is the first book of a trilogy, so perhaps it suits better here. Having said that, I enjoyed the book more than I’d expected to – the two narratives didn’t seem to sit well together but were individually interesting, and once the connection had become obvious things picked up. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.
José Monico
So I finally get my wish granted. Baxter has a book that is character-centralized, and wholly divided on any grand environment (e.g., theoretical space opera). This is a historical fiction piece divided into contemporary and past narratives. This series is quite comparable to Baxter's Time Tapestry. However, the former is tolerable, in that it is short. I actually had to go to my bookshelf and see how much of this I had to endure. Unfortunately, my wish wasn't clear enough. Baxter just does not do a good job of fleshing out his characters; three-hundred pages in, and there continues to be no life in them. It's not that they haven't gone through some sort of plight; it's that they are simply not described in any emotive manner. Any attempt to flesh out a character in a similar mechanism to that of a space alien, or unnatural uber subra-being will just come out as technical, and cold. And since the reader no longer has anything else to fall on - e.g., space awesomeness - we're left with a very boring experience. On that same page, the connection to the bigger picture - xeelee sequence - is disappointing. There is truly only a vague reminder of the greater battles in this small story; to the point where it would achieve stand-alone ground by simply removing those insignificant elements that tie it to XS.
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