infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Riding the Rock

by Stephen Baxter

(PS Publishing, £8, 61 pages, signed limited edition paperback, also available as signed limited edition hardback priced £25, published September 2002.)

Near my home is a Commonwealth War cover scanCemetery, 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 on Mars?

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.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)