Sunday, 11 September 2016

On: Stephen Baxter's "Raft"

Trying to branch out to new authors, and potentially new series, Stephen Baxter was a name that has come up a fair bit and particularly his "Xeelee" universe novels. I took a chance, aiming to start back at the beginning, with "Raft", from 1991.

A quarter century old now, it shows it. Not so much via obsolete direct technological references, which are ducked via context. (Although there is one to a large IBM computer, which stood out). It's more the immaturity of the writing.

The setting is ludicrous in the details of it's physical infeasibility, but a fairly novel premise: what if the gravitational constant, in a parallel universe, was crazy strong, such that cosmology scaled right down to human sizes? Stars the width of towns, 'planets' a few dozen 'yards' across (not sure why he chooses imperial here). Throw a bunch of (former) space faring humans into the mix and what weird, appalling, structures might their descendants inhabit there...?
Of course he has to crowbar in a lot of fudges, like their mini nebula being conveniently pervaded by breathable air, of reasonable pressures. These multiple axioms come in addition to frequently glossing over myriad impracticalities, like just moving about in the various micro-(and mega)-gravity situations. Something only a book can hope to even attempt.

Despite this, it's the characterisations which grate most. One might excuse a little of this via the protagonist boy's somewhat autistic spectrum psyche. But the motivations, action and dialogue of most of the people encountered is stilted and frequently unbelievable. Perhaps a contemporary (2016) audience demands much more seamless theory of mind. This does represent one of Baxter's first efforts, so not surprising that the details will be somewhat naive. Especially as it's high concept sci-fi, with events necessarily contorted see the sights and join the plot-dots.


I'd like to push ahead through more of the 'Xeelee sequence', in theory, but I can't recommend this particular novel to others. The pacing is fine, though, and it's a fairly quick read, that I actually finished. So maybe I'll loop back to the fictional universe with the later "Destiny's Children" trilogy, after trying a few other different authors...


The worst offense was "Gover". A distilled demonisation of an anti-science stereotype, willfully lazy and ignorant, filled with totally unsympathetic blind hate. An antagonist who becomes so 2D that it's fine that he's physically and verbally assaulted by another, who becomes a friend. And for an ultimate showdown for the antagonist, with having to tar the protagonist into a grey area at all.

The whole pro-science agenda of the book is bone bare blatant and heavily laboured; the undeniable virtuosity of the search for knowledge as an isolated force for good, even in a claustrophobic dystopian nightmare society declining rapidly through it's final, raged breaths. No mention of religion or superstition. Almost as a side note, it horrendously flunks the Bechdel test. With only 2 female characters mentioned, both love interests for the protagonist, there's a greater gender disparity than in a university an engineering department! Perhaps that reflected Baxter's personal social experience after two technical degrees (also my own, heh).

The distinct, role based social stratifications in the raft's society are the model of those in young adult dystopian stories of decades since: scientist, command, maintenance, pilot, miner, (boney), and never shall they overlap. not sure if that was less, or more, trite at the time.

From Gizmodo: 24 Must-Read Books About Space Travel.

The flying 'trees' are perhaps the most unbelievable, with their naturally occurring, vacuum chambered central gimbal to let them spin-up (and then somehow continue to rotate against air friction. Let alone that these could be carefully steered by manipulating their mechanical phototropism reactions with little clouds of smoke, emitted from little burning bowls on the giant living wagon wheels themselves. Have them conveniently hover in fixed position, untethered, for days with minimal supervision. And it does supposedly rain in the nebula, but how are the trees even supposed to take up water for photosynthesis... A very rough conceptual sketch, which is nonetheless a heavily leaned upon crux throughout.

The 'gravitic', amorphous lifeforms of the core which harass the ramshackle ship, towards the end, with dark tendrils of super-dense pseudo-matter reminded me very much of a bit in Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space, where a tendril extended from the "Hades" neutron-star computational matrix thing. But there it's friendly, saving the day. Also, that was written almost a decade later so props to Baxter for the original idea, perhaps.

The story's conclusion is seemingly optimistic and happy, talking about humanity spreading out to inhabit and explore all of this strange universe. But the only mechanism for this magical thinking seems to be our deus-ex protagonist, who miraculously inspired the disintegrating society into a last ditch fling at survival. Their reality is, however, an utterly bleak contrast to this - totally hopeless. There's maybe a couple hundred of them, very badly battered, also malnourished before they even set off. They've no provisions and only a single, ancient, much abused and depleted, magic-tech food machine. They've nothing to even stand on, let alone trying to even rebuild the knife-edge precarious, improvised and crumbling living spaces from which they came. They don't have enough population for the specialisations to kick start a bronze age society (even in friendly, green pastures). Even the impossible, vomit inducingly macabre mass of a "boney" planetoid would take impossibly long to accrete... But then an intelligent looking alien thing turns up, so maybe the unrealistic idiots will be saved. Cliché space opera end.

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