Classically Inclined

August 20, 2013

Book review: Coalescent – Stephen Baxter

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:12 am
Tags: , , ,

I picked up Coalescent because it was recommended in a panel at Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space – mind you, so were plenty of other books, but Coalescent got to the top of the queue because it felt like a good choice for summer holiday reading. I’m not going to discuss it from an SF perspective, mainly because I don’t know the genre well enough to comment on how it tessellates with those expectations. What I found particularly interesting was the way that Baxter uses Roman Britain and late antiquity as a space for constructing a science fiction narrative which has consequences which spread into the distant future.

Warning: here be spoilers.

The main body of Coalescent consists of three life stories: that of George Poole, who has discovered he has a missing twin sister after his father’s death and is trying to find her; that of Lucia, a member of the mysterious Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins, whose menarche is only the start of her problems; and that of Regina, a Romano-British child when the legions are leaving Britain, who eventually goes on to found the Order and establish the conditions which will lead it to take the strange form it does when we encounter it in the lives of George and Lucia. George knows about the family myth which connects him to Regina, but regards it with some scorn as a children’s story until he discovers otherwise. Coalescent sets up Roman Britain as something very real and relevant to the lives of the characters, despite George’s conviction that it has no importance whatsoever.

Regina’s story plays out in a Britain that has lost Roman protection, where everything is crumbling. As a child, she is taken to Hadrian’s Wall by her grandfather after her father castrates himself and her mother runs back to Rome; she watches her grandfather killed as his soldiers revolt and discipline on the Wall breaks down; joining the family of her once-slave Cartumandua in Verulanium, she must leave after the city is set on fire and (heavily pregnant) sets up an independent steading on an abandoned farm. After being displaced by Artorius (yes, you guessed it, Arthur legend nod here we come), she eventually agrees to become his consort to protect her illegitimate daughter, but leaves him to sail to Rome when it becomes clear that he has, frankly, lost some of his tactical marbles. At Rome, she remakes contact with her mother and discovers that she and her sisters (so Regina’s aunts) have created the Order as a way of protecting the Vestal Virgins after the rise of Christianity; she then begins to shape the order into what it will become, creating underground crypts for protection, controlling who is and isn’t allowed to have children, and essentially coming up with the rules that Lucia and George see the Order still following in 2003.

The sci-fi thing about all of this is that Regina’s attempts to protect her family (go underground, set apart a few women to have children while the rest support them, prioritise the well-being of the group over that of the individual) have, in the modern period, had significant consequences. Going underground, which first happens to protect the Order from the ravages of the Vandals, became the norm – and so the sisters adapted, their eyes and skin becoming sensitive to light. (Male children are born, but there are few of them, and they either leave or are gay. Apparently.) The practice of restricted childbirth meant most girls do not reach menarche, remaining prepubescent in their physical appearance. The women develop a way of communicating with each other through body language and pheromones that takes place almost unconsciously. There is also a biological consequence, in that the women born into the order evolved a spermatheca  (demonstrating parallel evolution; men who serve as fathers are bought in from the extended family, keeping the gene pool diverse but strong). The reader discovers all this through the parallel stories of George and Lucia, aided in part by George’s slightly unhinged childhood friend Peter (who will eventually end the story by Blowing Things Up, which was a little unsatisfactory, but never mind). The final judgment is that the Order has created a eusocial community, like that found among ants, but in humans.

The really interesting thing, to my mind, is not so much where Baxter takes these possibilities, but how he uses Roman Britain, and indeed the late imperial period, as a way to generate the conditions which make these evolutionary changes possible. A character from a jump into the future at the end of the book observes that the “eusocial solution” appears whenever “the living is marginal, where people are crowded in on each other”. Obviously, for Regina these conditions are first properly filled when she takes the members of the Order down into the catacombs to protect the Vandals. However, the conditions of Roman Britain in chaos, as the power of empire disappears and takes important skills and trading links with it, create conditions of scarcity, where Regina must learn how to produce and create on the margins. People are crowded in on each other because of the need to live closely in communities, regardless of how much space might actually be available in the geographic locale, and to create communities able to withstand the marauding of invaders. The conditions of eternal collapse of this period, particularly in Britain, are precisely those which would (in Baxter’s theory) have created an eusocial attitude. It’s not something I’ve ever seen done with Roman Britain before, but it’s a sharp observation, and the consequences are well played out.

I’m still dwelling on the gender elements. There is an obvious matriarchal thing going on with Regina, who is (let’s be honest) sometimes not a very nice person in her attempt to make sure that her family survives. Artorius offers an alternative patriarchal system, along with his iron-worker Myrddin, who seeks to draw Artorius back to the Celtic way of doing things and scorns Regina’s attempts to keep account books. However, Regina takes Artorius appearing stark bollock naked in front of a group of generals he’s trying to convince to join him in invading Europe as a sign that this is probably not going to end well. You could read what happens subsequently as a misogynist view of maternity, or as a way of exploring how competing survival tactics would operate. I’m not sure which side I come down on yet. Part of the whole novel’s point is to explore how breeding works in a group of humans who have evolved slightly differently, and so it’s difficult to say whether that is a good or a bad thing in and of itself, but part of me is fundamentally suspicious of anything that thinks of women primarily as breeding machines. Of course, most of the members of the Order aren’t – they’re there to support the Order, not produce new members. But there are some uncomfortable questions here to which I’m not sure I’ve worked out wholly satisfactory answers.

That said, Coalescent is a very interesting way to handle the Roman British period – I’ve not come across a book that uses the unsettledness of the era as a way to set up a sci-fi concept before, and I think it works rather well. It’s also a fresh take on it, despite the rather inevitable nod to the Arthurian legend. I particularly liked the way in which Regina kept on repeating the mantra ‘when everything gets back to normal’ – as if the Emperor would return, Britain would settle down into the world she knew as a child (which even then was falling apart at the seams), and a golden age which never actually existed would be restored. That gives her justification for her actions – her goal is to survive until ‘things get back to normal’. Part of Baxter’s skill is showing the consequences of the fact that things never got back to normal.


  1. One of the things Baxter is very good at is depicting people trying to maintain as much “normality”as possible In the face of catastrophe, and Coalescent shows this off particularly well.

    Comment by tonykeen46 — August 21, 2013 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  2. […] Gloyn at Classically Inclined writes about Coalescent by Stephen Baxter. I have some issues with the details of the presentation of Late and Post-Roman Britain in […]

    Pingback by This week’s interesting things | Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space — August 31, 2013 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

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