Destiny’s Children by Stephen Baxter

(This “review” was originally posted 11/17/2006 at wotmania.com, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found at RAFO.] It has been edited, just a little, for spelling and grammar. It has NOT been edited for style, and it is blunt and tactless and appallingly unfluid. I apologise.)

*****

Stephen Baxter was the first person to scare me away from Science Fiction. See, I wasn’t too able to handle intelligent plots, once upon a time. I had to lured back in by authors who were sneaky and evil and wonderful – and then I read – or reread – Ring. It was yummy.

But I’m not writing about Ring. I’m talking now of Destiny’s Children, composed of CoalescentExultant and Transcendent (in that order).

Sometimes I still find Baxter confusing. The books fit into the larger Xeelee framework (way into the future, humanity battles against the alien and unknown Xeelee species, and it‘s hard to tell which is the xenocidal villain) – of which I have not read everything there is to read. Books in the framework often (but not always) follow the lives of various members of the Poole family, who Do Important Stuff – and this is why it’s confusing, since I sometimes cannot remember which Poole we are talking about, or if we have seen a particular Poole before, and in any case the books aren‘t really about the Pooles.  Destiny’s Children brings us new Poole men and What They Do Though the Books Aren’t Really About The Poole Men. Except when they are.

Stephen Baxter: Coalescent


<from blurb> “As the light of the Roman Empire gutters and fails one woman begins a remarkable quest to protect her family… [I]n England George Poole is looking for his long-lost sister. It is a search that will take him to Rome and into the heart of an ancient secret…”

Let’s deal with the problems first: This isn’t an exciting novel. It’s not necessarily fast-paced.  This isn’t to say that it’s not an interesting, even fascinating, novel. It is. It’s just that I went into it expecting battlestarships, despite reading the blurb, which mentioned none.

Another problem is that there are two main protagonists, and the narrative alternates between two radically different people/times. Regina lives in medieval Europe, and George Poole lives in near-future England. (He wears tweed.) The novel shows Regina developing (in a somewhat linear fashion) from youth to old age, while it charts a short span of months in George’s own young middle age. Regina is fascinating. Baxter’s simplicity when it comes to character design pays off here: you wouldn’t be able to construct so complex a character is you tried to make her multi-faceted. And I like strong female characters, and I like it especially when I can see why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if I don’t necessarily agree with what they’re doing.

George on the other hand… well, let’s put it this way. He is boring. His narrative is not. And if nothing else his blankness makes him a good observer/narrator, which is, now that I think about it, his role in the book, so that actually makes it okay. He forms, morever, an aesthetic contrast to Regina. I shouldn’t be complaining at all.

What else? Well, depending on your viewpoint, the novel is either paying too little attention to gender, or it’s doing just the right amount of work to make you do your thinking for yourself. I’ve swung both ways.

That’s it for bad things. Good things?

“This is a novel that makes you think.” It does what one assumes science fiction wants to do: use a scientific concept to examine human society – and the evolution of that society. There’s more meat in this novel, with its subtext that analyses Catholicism, male/female gendering, organisational structuring/evolution, plain old evolution, the Family, the Underground (the Mafia?), schisms in how we look at the changing world we live in, change over time, Darwin and having sex. (And babies.)

(There’s a cameo PoV, of a fifteen year old girl whose name I have forgotten, that I found particularly compelling, and I simply cannot tell you anything exciting about it – partially because it would be spoileric – except that it was fascinating.)

Final analysis: It’s a good novel, thematically strong. Not light reading.


Stephen Baxter: Exultant


<from the blurb> “Faced with certain death, a young pilot, Pirius, disobeys orders and travels into the future. Upon his return, Pirius is court-martialled and sentenced to penal servitude. But it’s not only Pirius that pays the price…Pirius returned to a time before he’d left, a time inhabited by his younger self, who also receives punishment. Comissary Nilis believes that the elder Pirius… may know how to defeat the Xeelee…” and so on and so forth.

This novel is set entirely in the far future, and is more obviously a Xeelee novel.

Again, the novel deals with two very different people – both of them the same. The Pirius’s are well-drawn, but I would have liked some more time spent on Torec, who in some ways has more to deal with than they do.

What doesn’t work? Well, I’m still not keen on time travel stories (though thankfully Baxter doesn’t mess around with Oh me oh my the paradox) and it took me a while to understand what was happening in certain scenes – they happened too quickly for me. [But since this is an entirely personal problem you may ignore it. (Or tell me you have it too and make me feel better!)]

Plotting and pacing lag a bit during the second third (the “middle”) of the novel, and partly it’s due to the schizophrenic nature of the narrative itself – the two “same” characters who we have to deal with, and Nilis and Torec (nominally the female romantic interest) who don’t always mediate between the two like they should – and partially it is because vast amounts of the novel are not “new”. We’ve read them before in other Xeelee novels. (It’s like reading WoT in that regard. The Blues don’t like the Reds? Yawn, and pass me a pillow, please.)

Things shift around a bit as the novel draws to a close, and here everything is too rushed (like the RotK movie). And this is a pity because some very grand things are happening at these points, and I would have liked for things to be more in focus. Granted, the fast pace suits the battle scenes, but that isn’t, to my mind, what the novel is “about”. A+ for content, B for style.

It’s still a fairly exciting novel. (It has fights!) As with Coalescent it rewards the thinking reader (this isn’t easy escapist literature!) – evolution, the vastness of us and them, the tragic scope of war and the waste that efficiency can bring about, hypocrisy of – and so on and so forth. I could have done with more overt engagement with the humanity the novel briefly shows us.

(I’m trying to find the review that says that Exultant is like a homage to the themes and stories of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I remember thinking it sounded perfectly right. It was a semi-compliment, and a semi-complaint.)

Exultant, to my mind, does not work as a stand-alone novel. It fits in thematically with the sequence (the trilogy is beautifully structured in that sense, in terms of theme, content, plotline) but on its own it’s just an okay Baxter novel.

Final analysis: Interesting, bad pacing, good characterisation, great overall plot, iffy on details. More meat than gravy. Not as good as Coalescent. Read it without keeping in mind that Baxter has written better, and you may not have any complaints at all.


Stephen Baxter: Transcendent


I’m afraid this review is going to be even more scatty than the other two, because it’s a patchy good/great/bad novel. I’m going to say contradictory things about it.

<from blurb> “It is the year 2047, and… Michael Poole is mourning the death of his beloved wife and doubting his own sanity. But he must stave off a looming catastrophe…

…Though born five hundred thousand years after the death of Michael Poole, Alia knows him intimately… Chosen to be a Transcendent, a member of a group mind that is sheperding humanity toward an evolutionary apotheosis, Alia discovers a dark side to the Transcendent’s plans…”

What I liked most about this novel were the structural parallels (not similarities, just parallels) with Coalescent. It’s like being brought full circle and beyond.

I’d say characterisation is again lop-sided. Michael Poole comes through fairly well, and the novel redeems George (from Coalescent) by showing him from the outside/aging him gracefully. Alia is a bit… er. Young. Alia sounds and feels young, and slightly immature. I didn’t like reading her sections, mainly because I kept wanting someone a bit older and steadier in her place. She’s intelligent enough, and there’s nothing positively wrong with her. But because she seems so undeveloped, as a person, important events that she brings into motion come right out of the blue, and her narrative is always jerky and awkward. (She doesn’t have the best of supporting casts, either.)

There’s some amount of “lazy science” (I stole this from a review [uncomplimentary] over at sfreviews.net) where big and plot-important things are done which aren’t really explained at all – something I find slightly annoying in a Baxter novel.

[Warning: this is a book of ideas. It works best – it works beautifully – if you read all the three books in a row. (Which is what I did.)]

{It’s not, in the cold light of day, a very plausible novel. It’s slightly too grand, too myffic, and not woven tightly enough for me to always say, Right! That can happen!

I suppose it’s a bit much to point at someone’s vision of humanity that spans way way way way into the future, looking at what we may or may not become, and where we can go wrng for the right reasons, or vice versa, and what Science (Magic!) can do to us, and forus, and say, “But that doesn’t seem plausible to me!” and I must admit that while I was reading it I didn’t have as many problems with it as I have now.}

By the way, readers who like Isaac Asimov might note this novel as a tribute to some of his works. Or they may not.

Okay. Um. I’ve said many not-quite complimentary things, so here’s the illogical bit: the novel works. Alia and her supporting cast aren’t great shakes, but the Transcendent persona(e) and the humanity(s) we encounter more than make up for it. It’s a fascinating psychological perspective (if lots of reviewers see traces of World War One in Exultant, I’d say there’s a great deal of post-World War Two in Transcendent) on “us” and how we work, change, deal with the cosmos above us and the people around us… And Alia’s odd characterisation (it’s like Baxter threw character-ingredients into a pot, hoping that the result would be edible) is partly caused by a vast musing on Ideas of Humanity That Changes. And yet stays the same.

The meat is still good, though the dressing needs some salt (yes, this evil metaphor shall be used no more). I like the ending, even though I’m still slightly baffled about how we got there (Alia, blame Alia, stupid teenage girl who is just a ragtag bundle of characteristics that move the plot along whenever Baxter feels like it).

Michael Poole’s own narrative works, too, because he is set amongst interesting people, in a story arc that felt oddly relevant to “now”. It’s a traditional sort of story, I daresay you’d call it, but it’s well told, and it hangs together in its odd way. I wouldn’t entirely mind living in the future he lives in… it’s cleaner than here, or at least tries to be.

Final analysis: Really, the problem with the novel is that it is just too easy to nit-pick at it. Baxter has a nice, fluid style and the tale proceeds well. I like the alternating narratives, and even Alia’s at least has a nicely varied world. It wraps up the Destiny’s Children sequence, fits into the overall theme and brings down the curtain gently. Read it, it’s better than I make it sound.

(Note: Since this review was written, Baxter has added one more book to the sequence: Resplendent, published by Gollancz S. F. It’s a collection of short stories which I have not read yet. I’ll rectify that eventually.)

One response to “Destiny’s Children by Stephen Baxter

  1. The covers are freaky. I think they would put me off.

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