by Stephen Baxter
Imagine a universe where gravity is many times stronger than it is in our own, where stars are much smaller than in our own and live and die relatively quickly, a universe where life has adapted to travel between nebula for their survival.
It is to just such a universe that Stephen Baxter’s debut novel takes us.
It has been over five hundred years since the crew of a spaceship from Earth found themselves trapped in this strange and dangerous universe. In that time their descendants have learned to adapt to the oddities of this new reality, most of them with no knowledge or understanding of their past. They have learned to accept this strange existence. But for one young man, Rees, a miner working in the Belt, his curiosity and need to understand his world are about to change everything.
Since their arrival, the crews’ descendants have divided into three different groups, each forced to adapt in different ways to ensure their survival. There is The Belt, where inhabitants mine the core of stars for iron they can trade. There is The Raft, home to descendants of the officers and scientists who consider themselves to be the elite. Then there are the Boneys, to many a myth, who live deep in the gravity well of the nebula and whose survival strategies are the most extreme of all. But as Rees soon discovers, the Nebula that has been mankind’s home for generations is dying, and there is no obvious strategy that will enable them to survive that.
Raft follows Rees’ journey as it brings him into contact with all three “tribes” of humans, learning their strengths and developing an understanding of how they could each benefit the whole. It has all the hallmarks of a great Science Fiction adventure. There is plenty of science, both speculative and real, mixed with gripping adventure and insightful introspection of human nature. There is a touch of Lord of the Flies about the way some of the characters develop, which is not a bad thing.
Although there is a lot of science in the book, I felt it was more character-driven. Baxter doesn’t dig too deeply into his character’s backgrounds, but he has created a believable and solid ensemble whose strengths and frailties provide the key to mankind’s survival.
I have to admit that my only previous experience of Stephen Baxter’s work was as a collaborator with Terry Pratchett on on “Long Earth” series and Arthur C Clarke on the “Time Odyssey” trilogy. It is clear from this book that this needs to change.
And I should point out that although this book is listed as the first in the Xeelee Sequence, it is definitely a stand-alone novel.
A worthy inclusion in Gollancz’s “Masterworks” collection.