Riding the Rock
(PS Publishing, £8, 61 pages, signed limited edition paperback, also
available as signed limited edition hardback priced £25, published September
Near my home is a Commonwealth War
a peaceful, neatly tended lawn where rows of headstones commemorate
almost a thousand young men and women who died in last century's wars.
A handful date from the end of the 1914-18 conflict -- most of these
in fact seem to have died after the armistice was signed -- but the
majority come from a single week in May 1940, when our sleepy central
Belgian valley was briefly on the front line in the Second World War.
The British position became untenable and they withdrew to Dunkirk,
leaving their dead -- including a first cousin of King George VI --
behind them. I often see flowers or even photographs which have been
recently left at individual tombstones there, two generations on.
In Stephen Baxter's Riding the Rock, some of the soldiers fighting
the eighteen thousand year war between humans and the alien Xeelee are
under investigation for "anti-Doctrinal thinking". They have
committed heresy by building a memorial to their dead -- an arch, beautifully
portrayed on the front cover of this PS Publishing novella, on which
each of the fallen is named individually. The ideological basis for
the war is controlled by the Orwellian-sounding Commission for Historical
Truth, which allows no room for individual commemoration; as Luca, the
Commission Novice who is the viewpoint character, protests early on,
"It's the species that counts."
Luca, along with his master and the enigmatic, attractive young woman
officer who has brought them the report of heresy, is sent to the front
to investigate. He ends up participating in an attack on the Xeelee
at the galactic core, a location whose portrayal Gregory Benford assures
us is "scientifically accurate", in an introduction which
passionately argues the merits of "hard sf". Does it really
matter, I wonder, if it is scientifically accurate or not? Will this
become a worse story, if in ten or fifty years it turns out that Benford
and his fellow astrophysicists have got it completely wrong? Is, for
instance, Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" of less literary
merit because there are no dying civilisations with beautiful dancers
In the end, the Commission is revealed as dehumanising and inhuman
in its efforts to preserve humanity. Baxter's general argument against
the awfulness of treating humans as statistics in a war without end
is well made, and his portrayal of the conscription and brainwashing
of child soldiers has unhappy resonances in several of today's African
conflicts. Luca's transition from zealous acceptance of Doctrine to
horror at its human consequences makes this a rite-of-passage story
with a real kick.
I did scratch my head a bit at the actual concept of "riding the
rock" which gives the story its title. It's a rather unsatisfactory
transposition of trench warfare into a far-future context which seems
to me unlikely to have any chance of success in the implied time available,
especially given the supposed realist constraints of hard sf. Significantly
the story is dedicated to Baxter's own grandfather, who it is implied
was himself a survivor of the First World War trenches.
Most of his comrades must have ended up in cemeteries like the one
near my home, remembered each November by those left behind. Which leads
me back to the core problem of the story: it's difficult to conceive
of even the strongest totalitarian regime successfully repressing the
human instinct to commemorate loss -- indeed, the smartest ideologists
have always used funerals as propaganda. But of course many of the best
stories are written about improbable events, and Baxter's bleak prose
makes this grim future seem just sufficiently plausible.
Review by Nicholas Whyte.
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