Monday, 19 April 2010

Stephen Baxter, Stone Spring (2010)

Baxter has written several novels in which intrepid humans use their technology to try and stave off environmental disaster. Sometimes he sets those novels in the future—his Clarke-co-authored Sunstorm for instance, where the sun threatens to flare and obliterate life, and humans must push their technical nohow to the limit to construct an orbital soletta and save the cheerleader. Sorry, world. Stone Spring is another such novel, except that this one is set not futuristically but prehistorically, in the Mesolithic period.

The land nowadays covered by the North Sea is open to the sky and inhabited by an attractive tribe of fisher-gatherers. In our world the basin flooded when the last ice age ended; but Baxter’s book explores the what-if of an unflooded North Sea. This, the title page says, is ‘Northland Book 1’: and we start pre-flood, with various characters who gather from the four corners of the world in Baxter’s northsea ‘Etxelur’. The cutting-edge technology they employ to try and hold back the waters is—a nice touch, this—bricks, more precisely the assembly of a great many bricks and stones into a huge seawall.

It is, in other words, another Baxterian floodpocalypse, something humanity fights against this time with ur-lego. And the whole thing is served with all Baxter’s usual trimmings: an engaging band of likeable characters having to overcome not only the technical challenge but a range of ancillary threats, dangers and difficulties. The detail is all Mesolithic-specific, and a lengthy afterword details the extensive research the author has done. But, as ever, the things that really leap out are the cool ideas for which there is no historical evidence—the wall itself, a tribe of feral ‘Leafy Boys’ who live only in the forest canopy covering prehistoric Britain, like characters from Aldiss’s Hothouse.

By and large I fully bought-into Baxter’s Mesolithicitizens (although, strictly speaking, there’s only one city in the book: the Biblical Jericho, nicely rendered as a seamy, crowded, unhealthy sort of place, surrounded by brick walls designed to keep out floods and mudslides rather than human enemies). They chat amongst themselves like modern folk—the book is probably a little too dialogue-heavy, although of course that’s also to do with the conventions of the medium ... nothing less Mesolithic than a continuous prose narrative bound between hard boards, after all. And generally Baxter not only worldbuilds splendidly, but does enough to sketch out the different being-in-the-world of his characters. That said, there are places where I wasn’t sure the emphasis was quite right: for example, his characters seemed to me to have a rather twenty-first-century reverence for the life of babies (‘As Ana neared that broken body she saw the red tightly curled hair, the strong arms splayed in death ... she felt as if she died too in that moment. “It’s alright,” Arga said, burying her face in Ana’s chest, “You had to save the baby ...”’) which I’m not sure was likely shared by the peoples of actual prehistory. Indeed, one character gives birth by Caesarian section, which I found inherently dubitable, and doubly so since both baby and mother survive the operation.

That said, there are only a few elements here that wobbled a little, I thought. A very nicely handled narrative strand brings brick-expert Novu from bricky Jericho to brickless Etxelur, brought out as a slave of a tubercular old trader called Chona. The two walk across Eurasia, trading as they go, until Novu suffocates the old man with his leather shirt and gains his freedom. He does so after the old man threatens to rape him—although, since the randy old fellow has owned this slave for months by this stage, I didn’t see why it would have taken him that long. It’s odder because elsewhere in the book Baxter is neither squeamish nor gritty-averse. Indeed, there are some splendidly visceral scenes, not least a climactic battle that’s almost Homeric in its detailed descriptions of spears penetrating different parts of different bodies.

More, there’s one way in which this book marks another advance in Baxter’s already accomplished technique. It is full of descriptive writing of genuine evocative power, particularly when it comes to the landscapes of his world, and most especially of the North Sea landscapes of Etxelur. Evidence of Baxter’s continuing maturity not just as an ideas man but as a writer.

4 comments:

Jonathan M said...

Oh.

I've reviewed pretty much everything that Baxter has put out recently and, with some occasional misgivings, been quite positive about his output. I thought that Ark was a real triumph.

But another series of historical novels which is also a series of novels about humans scrabbling to prevent a flood?

I may well sit this one out.

Adam Roberts said...

Well, I could add that this novel feels very different to Flood; though it has some of the flavour of Baxter's other forays into prehistory.

Jonathan M said...

I think on a creative level, there's no problem with sticking with the same ideas over time. I mean, Ballard only ever really had about 2 or 3 different ideas and just endlessly revisited them from slightly different perspectives to great critical acclaim right up until the end.

I really like final stage Ballard.

I also really like Baxter's recent output.

But I think that repetition really is starting to become an issue for him and this does seem a lot like a rehash of his last two series...

Now, it's possible that he will tease the same issues out in a different way (just as I think Destiny's Children re-examined the XeeLee mythos in a new light) and that in a year's time I'll be howling about the fact that he's not on the Hugo shortlist but I do think that he's stuck in something of a rut.

Tony Keen said...

I'm looking forward to this. Though the mother surviving Caesarian section is indeed a bit of a stretch (no recorded instance pre-1500, though I suppose that is pre-modern, so it may just be possible.