Destiny's Children: Book 1
UK Hardcover First
Publication Date: 10-15-2003
473 Pages; £12.99
Destiny's Children: Book 1
Del Rey / Random House
US Hardcover First
496 Pages; $25.95
Publication Date: 12-01-2003
Date Reviewed: 12-31-03
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003
Most of the time, we're struggling from moment to moment, trying to make it through a single day at a time. The long run might interest us, but it's hard to get involved. Planning for retirement is about as far as we'll go, and once it's started, we'd prefer not to think about it until we open up that so-called "lock box" to yank out whatever we can get our hands on, simply because we want to use it now, on the day during which we're doing the yanking.
But some of us like to "sculpt in time", as Andrei Tarkovsky characterized filmmaking. Writers and readers have a little more patience than the rest of the population, simply because the task at hand -- writing or reading -- can only get done so fast. As a writer, the payoff for constructing beyond the moment is that it allows you to tackle bigger subjects. As a reader, the payoff for reading when the end is beyond the immediate work at hand is the knowledge that a bigger picture will emerge, will coalesce in our minds. The pleasure of a slowly built-up, layered approach is subtle but immense. The writing also demands subtlety and attention to immensity as well. But since most people don't live layered lives, dedicated not to themselves, but to an abstract goal, there aren't many characters you can convincingly drop on the page to allure the reader beyond the immediate.
Working with both history -- the long run -- and mystery, the short run, Stephen Baxter's 'Coalescent' weaves a compelling tale that moves through generations, slowly unfolding a secret history while quickly unlocking a family's secrets. It's an excellent strategy for providing rewards both immediate and long-range for the reader. In full, simple swing, Baxter's work is intriguing and entertainingly skillful. But when he abandons his steady pace for a final sprint to the finish, he provides a faster read that's strangely less entertaining than the steady state that precedes it.
Readers expecting Baxter to unfurl a full-blown space opera in the first segment of 'Destiny's Children' will be sorely disappointed. Beyond one sentence in the first chapter that hints at some unusual happenings, there are practically no easily-discerned science fictional elements for nearly two-thirds of this novel. That's not to say that there are none whatsoever. We do hear that astronomers have sighted something unusual in the Kuiper belt. But Baxter is working for the long run here, and he's really good at it. He's not dishing out new-fangled inventions like teleporters or faster-than-light starships. Instead, he's recombining disparate elements of the past and present into something new and quite interesting.
When his father dies, 40-something software developer George Poole returns to Manchester to go through the house and sort out his father's affairs. There, he meets Peter, once a dweeb in school and still one as an adult. Peter was helping George's dad, apparently out of the kindness of his heart. George's older sister Gina has moved to Florida, and really doesn't want to deal with it. George and Peter reminisce uncomfortably about the past, including the old Poole family legend about Regina, the Roman-era British progenitor of the Poole family. It's only a legend, of course. While going through some old pictures, George finds a photo of what appears to be a younger sister he never knew. Intrigued, depressed, and aimless in his life, George decides to find out who the girl is.
Regina is only twelve years old and living in a Roman villa in Britain as the Empire crumbles. Her father is killed and her mother flees to Rome, leaving her child behind. Regina begins a journey across the harsh landscape of ancient Britain to join her mother in Rome. It's a journey that will transform her into a woman beyond her own imagining.
Of course, the legend is true. Regina is the greatest-grandmother of the Poole clan, and her story neatly dovetails into George's story. How it does so is rather within reach of the reader, but the reader's journey through Baxter's novel is a good deal more pleasurable than those accorded to the main characters. Baxter's prose is full of a sweet melancholy as he tells George Poole's story, shot through with pangs of bitterness and envy at the lives he has not lived. He's clearly uncomfortable with most everyone he meets, from the pushy and peculiar Peter to his stern sister Gina.
Regina starts out the novel as a whining, spoiled child of ancient riches, but she's quickly put in her place. SF readers will perhaps find her story slow going at first, but Baxter's talents as a writer quickly overturns any reluctance. Regina lives up to her name. She's slowly but very surely developed into a commanding character. Her story grows layer by layer into a riveting and intellectually fascinating narrative. Were you to pitch it as a film script, you'd say that it's a female version of Gladiator, sans any of that nasty fighting.
In both segments, Baxter plays off the age-old device of the Catholic Church as the font of all conspiracies, even though his characters are not really part of the Catholic Church. This is a fountain in which we've all been thoroughly baptized. Still, you can't have an organization named The Puissant Order of Mary Queen of Virgins without bringing in the at least some Catholic connotations. Baxter works this well, avoiding heavy-handedness and bringing a deft touch at both ends of the historical spectrum.
The layers that Baxter is assembling here are very interesting indeed. Much of the book would be extremely entertaining to a very wide audience. To bring the threads together, Baxter shifts out of his retirement-account melancholy mode and into something more of a thriller. For readers who enjoyed the long period of investment, the payoff is not as rewarding as one might hope. From two single, sad songs sung in counterpoint, he goes into something more of a medley. I missed the melancholy. But as the thriller proceeds, it becomes clear that we've actually entered another period of investment. Still, clearly science fictional sequences that come to bear in the finale seem more revolutionary than evolutionary in a novel where evolution has been an important and enjoyable part of the reading process.
I have to admit that 'Coalescent' did not start as I expected, and once my expectations had been set by the thrust of the narrative, it did not play out as I expected either. Baxter is a very, very clever man and he finds all sorts of advanced scientific concepts buried in an invisible past that he's woven with both power and care. Baxter's also a skilled writer. He's working for the long run. It's not unfair to say that he's training the reader in the course of the novel. First, we're prepared for the long run of the first novel. And by the time we've wrapped our brains around his lovely prose and long-range planning, he leads us up another flight of stairs to the next novel. The final sprint up the steps may seem a little tired or tiring, but by then, he's in it -- we're in it -- for the Big Picture.