Stephen Baxter: “Coalescent” (c) 2003.

Stephen Baxter is an English science fiction author, whose masterful and well written stories have won or been nominated for a number of awards:
British Science Fiction Association Award; Arthur C. Clarke award; Sidewise Award; John W. Campbell Award; Philip K. Dick Award ; Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis ; Seiun Award ; Analog Award ; Locus Readers’ Poll Award and Asimov’s Readers’ Poll  Award.

His novels, novellas and short stories are imaginative, often on an epic and cosmic scale, and explore many scientific theories and ideas. The development of plots and characters is interwoven into themes that explore the present, past, and future. A frequent theme includes the evolution of humanity to survive catastrophic events. He also writes alternate history and historical fiction, and the science fiction is part of these stories as well.

He has also written sequels to SF classics:
“The Time Ships” is an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”.   The sequel won three literary awards.
“The Time Odyssey” series is a trilogy co-authored with Arthur C. Clarke and is connected to Clarke’s “Space Odyssey” novels.

 

Stephen Baxter: “Coalescent” (c) 2003

This is the  first of a trilogy of novels, “Destiny’s Children” : “Coalescence ” (2003); “Exultant” (2004) and “Transcendent” (2005).

In genetics, the term “Coalescent” refers to a population that may have originated from a common ancestor.  This principle forms the basis of the SF aspects of the novel.

“Coalescent”  is a fascinating novel  because it has both historical fiction and science fiction components.
The historical fiction is developed first, and provides the necessary background to the science fiction that follows. The novel is divided into four parts, and there are alternating sections in each part, so that the story moves from contemporary times, to the historical fiction, again to the contemporary times, and at the end to the far-distant future in the far reaches of the galaxy. This is an epic novel of an unusual and unique family saga, and of humanity’s evolution, across time and space.

The historical fiction begins in 5th Century Roman Britain, during the declining days of the Roman Empire. The narrative’s main character in the historical fiction is Regina, who eventually moves to live in Rome. The narrative then continues in 5th century Rome.  Regina is the founder of an organization called the “Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins” .  The Order is at the heart of the story, and also of the SF in the story.

The Order bears some resemblance to a hive. Baxter draws on the concepts of adaptation in biological evolution for the basis of the Order’s divergent evolutionary path. There is a biochemical change that occurs over time as the Order lives below the streets of Rome through 1500 years. Only some of the young women in the Order develop the biological ability to bear children, and they are, in essence, the queens in the hive. The men are from related families, living normal lives above the underground city. The Order’s main goal is to ensure and provide a safe environment for the growing immense family through the generations. The Order keeps its contacts with the outside world, including the Vatican, and keeps up with the changing times, in terms of education and technology. In the 20th century, it has become a major resource for genealogical records, with access through the Internet.

Towards the last chapters of the novel, Baxter provides a picture of a far distant future, on far distant planets, where humans have evolved along the  Coalescent evolutionary path.

More about the novel:

The story begins in London, in the contemporary times, and eventually moves to Rome.

George Poole is the narrator in the novel.
When his father dies,  George  learns that  he has a twin sister Rosa Poole. He learns more about the  family’s past  when he visit his older sister Gina and his retired uncle Lou Casella, in Florida.
When Rosa was a young girl, their parents sent her to Rome to be raised by the “Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins”. The Order was founded in the 5th century by  their ancestral great-great … great grandmother Regina. George discovers that  both his parents have family connections to the Order.

George goes to Rome, and learns more from his twin sister, Rosa, about the story of their distant ancestor and founder of the Order, Regina, who was determined to protect and preserve her family as the Roman Empire fell apart in the 5th century.

In the 5th century

Regina was born into a wealthy family in Roman Britain. When her father kills himself, her mother goes to live in Rome. Young Regina remains in Britain, and goes with her grandfather to live along the Hadrian Wall, in the north. Her grandfather teaches her as much as he can, to read, to write and keep records. When her grandfather is killed by a soldier, Regina seeks refuge with her servant Cartamandua’s relatives in Verulamium. She is seduced, and abandoned by Cartamandua’s cousin Amator. Regina is pregnant when Verulamium burns down. Regina and Cartamandua’s family leave Veralumium, and enduring great hardship, they learn to live on an abandoned farmstead. Regina’s daughter Brica is born here. A few more families move into the other farmsteads and gradually, Regina provides the leadership needed to build and protect the small community. This is essential because Britain is under increasing attacks by the Saxons. The Roman Empire as a whole is falling apart as the Visigoths and the Vandals increase their attacks.

A British warlord, Artorius, is impressed with Regina, her leadership and independent thinking. He asks Regina to join with his forces. For some time, she manages the administration of his kingdom, but she realizes that Artorius’s drive for battle and conquest is a danger to her own life and that of her daughter Brica. She sets out for Rome, with Brica, to search for her own mother, Julia.

In Rome Regina re-establishes contact with her mother, Julia. To survive, to have a roof over their heads, Regina and Brica join an aging organization that her family has become connected with: the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. Regina revives the organization by converting it into a private school. Ever alert to the dangers posed by invading Visigoths and Vandals, Regina has prepared an underground sanctuary in the Catacombs of Rome. When Rome is sacked by the Vandals in 455 AD, the women and children in the Order seek refuge in the underground sanctuary, and that becomes their home.

Living as they do, Regina establishes important rules, to limit the number of children born in the order, and to preserve the family by selecting daughters, rather than sisters, to give birth. Only a few women would be selected to give birth. After her death  in 476 AD, and in the ensuing centuries, the Order continues its work of providing education, to help the poor and sick, and to continue to protect the family following Regina’s rules.

In the modern times:

In Rome, Rosa Poole  shows George the Order’s vast underground city.   The Order has kept up with the times, with modern living facilities, education and technology,  while following Regina’s  legacy of protecting the family.

The women, and the few men, are very much alike with oval faces and smoky grey eyes. Yet, they are still individuals, with their own names, groups of friends, and different abilities and skills.  For Rosa,  the Order is her real family, as it is George’s family.  In  the Order’s secret home, George feels a strong sense of belonging, but he is perplexed and  disturbed that the women  are all  young and  very much alike.

Lucia is one of the members of the modern-day Order, and evolves into one of the few women able to conceive and bear children. She struggles with this strange and unique difference that distinguishes her from her  friends and colleagues within the Order. In a brief outing to a park, Lucia meets a young American, Daniel, who gives her his business card, as he senses her turmoil. Lucia returns to her underground city.

In a ceremony within the Order’s chambers, Lucia is impregnated by a distant cousin. Lucia gives birth following only three months of pregnancy. The baby is taken from her at once and Lucia never sees her baby again. When she finds herself pregnant again, she is devastated. She contacts Daniel, and as he learns something of the Order, and her life there, he searches the Internet for more information. He comes across a  free-thinking Internet group called the Slan(t)ers and a group member, Peter McLachlan, who is interested in knowing more about the Order.

Peter McLachlan and George Poole are friends going back to their schooldays. Peter is fascinated by astronomy and physics — dark matter, SETI, black holes, the Kuiper Belt. Peter has joined George in Rome. When Peter receives the email from Daniel, they meet, and take Lucia to a hospital. However, the Order is very quick in getting Lucia released from the hospital.

George Poole returns to the Order’s underground city, to understand somehow, the workings of the Order. His sister Rosa almost persuades him to become a member of the Order.

Then events take a dramatic turn. Peter has found his way into the Order’s crypt, and threatens to blow up the underground city. Peter believes the Order is a threat to humanity as individuals, and that the Order intends to replace humanity with mindless drones. Peter detonates the explosives  and dies. George begins the evacuation of the Crypt, and the women and children emerge from their underground city, and vanish into the city of Rome. George manages to rescue Lucia and her baby from the crypt and eventually Daniel and his family take care of Lucia. She has another baby, and then she receives the medical treatment she needs to stop further pregnancies.

The Order must have prepared itself for the eventual abandonment of the underground city.  No traces remain of any connection between the Order and the bombed out underground.  The Order  continues to provide their genealogical records services.

The final chapters:

Modern times:

George is retired in Amalfi, in modern day Italy; he remembers the Sf novel by H. G .Wells, “The First Men in the Moon” – the story of the hive society of the Selenites in the Moon.

Far distant future :

The discovery of Coalescent societies on planets in far flung galaxies,  and the evolution of humans in distant galaxies. A frozen planet is discovered, and a Coalescent society has evolved and survived deep under the ice for eons.

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