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Claude Lalumiere's Fantastic Fiction

by Stephen Baxter

(US edition: Ballantine/Del Rey, $25.95, 485 pages, hardcover; published in December 2003. UK editions: Gollancz, October 2003; hardcover, £17.99, 608 pages; paperback, £12.99, 473 pages; mass market paperback, 6.99, 536 pages, 10 June 2004.)

Stephen Baxter is a prolific writer whose oeuvre firmly establishes itself in the tradition of science fiction's most influential figures. His ambitious and cover scanfascinating novel Coalescent, the first installment in his Destiny's Children series, combines a vast historical scope à la Olaf Stapledon with an astronomical scenario reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke.

As in his previous (and unrelated) novel, Evolution, Baxter takes an epic look at human evolution. He postulates how, in certain circumstances, humans might evolve into "coalescents" -- hive creatures with social and biological imperatives akin to those of ants or bees. He further speculates on a centuries-old secret society of coalescents living in the bowels of Rome under the guise of a religious order.

For most of its length, Coalescent skips between two timelines. In the present, George Poole discovers evidence of a long-lost twin sister and eventually tracks her to Rome, where he encounters Lucia, a young coalescent who wants to escape the Order. In the past, a woman's relentless quest for survival during the decline of the Roman Empire leads her to lay the foundations for a startling evolutionary leap. Near the end, Baxter introduces a third timeline, the future, in which humanity uses coalescents as expendable bodies during a devastating interstellar war.

Baxter's evocation of the declining Roman Empire is tactile and intriguing, and his present-day plot is a thrilling page-turner.

While searching for his sister, George gets enmeshed in the obsessions of a childhood acquaintance who believes that a bizarre astronomical anomaly poses a threat to humanity's survival -- according to him, evidence of a malign alien intelligence probing for signs of advanced technological development.

Baxter ties together all of these disparate elements with consummate skill, creating a captivatingly original novel and introducing a universe that excites the imagination.

Originally published in
The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, 24 January 2004.

Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction is a series of
capsule reviews first published in the Saturday Books
section of The Montreal Gazette.

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