Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1995-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.


COALESCENT by Stephen Baxter:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/06/2004]

Stephen Baxter's COALESCENT (ISBN 0-345-45785-4) is about a centuries-old secret society hidden in Rome. Wow, you're thinking, there's an idea that hasn't been used in, oh, the last five minutes. But in the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins, Baxter has come up with something very different than your standard, run-of-the-mill secret society. I liked the concepts behind it, but there are two major problems, one stylistic and one technical. The stylistic one is that most of the book, particularly the parts set in fifth century Britain, feel like giant info-dumps. The technical one is that the evolutionary changes seem to occur much more rapidly than they possibly could--particularly given one of the society's rules, "Sisters matter more than daughters." The implementation of this rule would mean that there would be fewer generations in a given time span (perhaps two a century rather than four), and hence the time for the evolutionary changes is effectively cut in half (it would require twice as long for the same number of generations). In fact, the whole idea behind the rules "sisters are more important than daughters" is to preserve genes, while the result Baxter describes seems to be massive genetic change. Ultimately, I think the situation Baxter describes is like the old brain teaser: A king tries to increase the percentage of girls in the kingdom by saying women may keep having children until they have a boy and then they must stop. At first glance, this sounds like it would work, but when you map it out, it will have no effect on the male-female ratio. Similarly, an emphasis on sisters rather than daughters will have no effect either. (There is some hand-waving about all this being because of pheromones rather than innate genetic effects, but I found that unconvincing.)

There was also a lot of extraneous material--strange events in the Kuiper Belt and a couple of chapters at the end centuries later which seem completely disjoint from the rest of the events of the novel--but since this is the first book of "Destiny's Children" it may all get tied up later. I guess I would give this a conditional recommendation--Baxter is generally very readable, and the society and its history are intriguing enough to make it worthwhile.

To order Coalescent from amazon.com, click here.


EMPEROR by Stephen Baxter:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/04/2007]

EMPEROR by Stephen Baxter (ISBN-13 978-0-441-01466-8) is "Time's Tapestry Book One". It consists of several sections--we get about a hundred pages of someone's story, then the book skips forward a few generations and we get another story, perhaps of that person's descendent, perhaps of someone else connected to the main thread. The first time I saw this technique--and still my favorite--was James Michener's book, THE SOURCE. However, I will note that in spite of Baxter's book being subtitled "An Alternate History Epic" and having S. M. Stirling say, "Baxter produces something new and subtly different in the time travel genre," there is no alternate history or time travel in this volume. There is a hint at the end that someone from the book's future is sending back messages to the past trying to divert history from our own timeline, but so far they have not been successful. (A friend who has seen the next two novels and spoken to the series's editor has said that it does eventually become alternate history, but if that is what you are interested in, I would certainly wait for the entire series to finish.)

To order Emperor from amazon.com, click here.


EVOLUTION by Stephen Baxterx:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/21/2017]

EVOLUTION by Stephen Baxter (ISBN 978-0-345-45783-7) has a structure very similar to THE SOURCE and HAWAII by James Michener. THE SOURCE has a framing story of an archaeological dig in Israel and is a chronological series of novelettes, each centering on an object found in the dig. HAWAII is not as clearly divided, but has an even longer time span than THE SOURCE, and deals more with the interactions of the various emigrant groups than THE SOURCE. (The flip side of these would be Olaf Stapledon's LAST AND FIRST MEN.)

EVOLUTION takes a somewhat different approach. Rather than looking at the stories behind what is found, or at the merging of lineages, Baxter mostly follows a single lineage from the appearance of mammals before the mass extinction of the dinosaurs to the far future. Baxter does occasionally diverge into other lines of descent that do not lead to Homo sapiens. In at least one case, one might quibble that the population bottleneck Baxter creates makes the subsequent population growth and success unlikely. But the complaint one reviewer had--that it was unlikely/impossible to have a single primate be the ancestor of all humanity is just wrong: Purga is not the only ancestor, as this person seemed to read Baxter's assumption, but merely a common ancestor.

Some of Baxter's more interesting "digressions" are stories of completely unknown species. Given that there were undoubtedly millions of Tyrannosaurus Rex during their existence, and so far only fifty specimens have been found (most incomplete), there must have been many species that lived and flourished that we have not a clue about. Baxter describes "what might have been"--not in the sense, of "what might have been, but wasn't" but in the sense of "what might, or might not, have been--we can never know." It's classic "sense of wonder" stuff.

Almost every chapter is about a key development in our evolution. We are there with primates who use "proto-tools" and when they use real tools. We are there when the first primate decides to leave the forest and live on the grasslands. We are there when they have the first glimmers of empathy (the idea that other primates have their own internal minds)--and how this leads to the invention of lying and deception. We are there when they start to use language as more than just a half-dozen cries meaning "food", "danger", and "submit" We are there when they invent art and religion.

The book's focus is, of course, on evolution, but Baxter takes this is an unexpected direction in the chapter in which agriculture is introduced. Yes, we adopted/invented agriculture as part of the evolutionary process, but Baxter seems to take a position that has been becoming more prominent lately: that agriculture was humanity's biggest mistake. From an evolutionary point of view, agriculture makes sense. It supports more people, who can have more children, who will replace through conquest those who do not embrace agriculture. But what is lost, according this position, is the quality of life. The agricultural human has more pains and more diseases, has to spend more time working to survive, has a high probability of having a less enjoyable life, than the hunter-gatherer human. Evolution does not care about happiness or even health per se--it cares about who produces more offspring. (This does not mean I think "evolution" has volition, just that this is a convenient way to express this.)

Definitely recommended.

In the midst of reading EVOLUTION, we went to see WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, and I found myself using some of the science cited in Baxter's book to critique the movie. For example, majority of the apes in most of the scenes walk with a human gait, not a simian one. Baxter details the evolutionary skeletal changes necessary to make this change, and clearly the apes could not have made these changes pretty much instantly, even with the virus. (For that matter, there is a lot in the film that is inconsistent. Nova is mute, but shows no other symptoms of the virus. Caesar supposedly is the only ape who speaks regularly, but when useful for the plot, a couple of the other apes seem to have the power of speech as well.

To order Evolution from amazon.com, click here.


"Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/27/2008]

"Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter (THE SOLARIS BOOK OF NEW SCIENCE FICTION) is a sort of classic British disaster story, with the disaster coming from cutting-edge physics rather than something like a plague or a meteor collision. The problem is that there seemed to be far more British "stiff-upper-lip-ism" and far less chaos than one would expect these days.


THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter:

[From the MT VOID, 11/24/1995]

This is the first authorized sequel to H. G. Wells's Time Machine, though there have been many unauthorized sequels. (See my Intersection convention report for a summary of Baxter's talk on these.)

The problem that British authors have is that if their books are published in Great Britain before they come out in the United States, they end up missing out on the Hugo nominations, since the voters are overwhelmingly North American. So listen up:

NOMINATE THIS BOOK.

(Actually, it used to be the kiss of death for me to recommend a book for a Hugo, but after I pushed for Michael Bishop's Brittle Innings and James Morrow's Towing Jehovah and both made the ballot, I figure that maybe the voters are coming to realize my wisdom.)

But back to The Time Ships. It begins where The Time Machine leaves off, right after the Time Traveller has told his story to his friends. They are skeptical, and he is feeling guilty about abandoning Weena to the fire and the Morlocks, so he packs a bag, hops into his time machine and heads back to 802,701 to rescue Weena, help the Eloi, and get proof of his travels.

But things don't go as planned.

I don't want to reveal too much. One of joys I had in reading this book was that, because it hadn't been released in the United States, I hadn't read much information about it. (I must have read enough in Locus to know I wanted to get it, but not much more than that.) But I can say that Baxter does a good job of writing in the style of Wells. After all, his story is still being told in the first person, by the Time Traveller, and so needs to retain the Victorian language that Wells used. Baxter does this, leavening it just a bit to avoid sounding obviously archaic. The result is something that readers familiar with Wells can "flow" into, but newer readers won't see as strange-sounding.

Baxter said at Intersection that there were some things Wells didn't do that he (Baxter) wanted to, and he does that here. Other speakers at Intersection--held this 100th anniversary of the original novel--point out that Wells ignored time paradoxes, and Baxter takes a stab at some of those, as well as introduced some ideas about time travel formulated since Wells's time. Yet he doesn't do this in a "pasted-on" fashion, and it works. The reader might even start to think that Baxter is trying to cover too much and too wide a range, and certainly there have been authors who attempted similar and failed, but Baxter ties it all together so well that in the end he cannot be faulted in this regard.

One minor complaint I had was the use of post-Wells historical figures (which at times did seem awkward). But Baxter's use was not, on the whole, gratuitous, and my objection may be just a side-effect of my seeing this done so often in alternate histories.

I have studiously avoided telling you more than the bare minimum of the plot so that you can discover the story as it unfolds. Go read this book.

(HarperPrism will be publishing this book in January 1996, which means it will probably be in the stores in December 1995. This is good news for United States fans, and also for Baxter, who may get the Hugo nomination he deserves.)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/10/2006]

Sitting on my shelf tempting me for a while has been THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter (ISBN 0-061-05648-0). I had read this sequel to H. G. Wells's TIME MACHINE when it came out in 1995, but it came up in a conversation recently and I decided to re-read it. I enjoyed it as much as when I first read it ten years ago, and I am pleased to note that it did in fact get the Hugo nomination it deserved.

To order The Time Ships from amazon.com, click here.


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