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Book cover art by David Stevenson.
Review © 2003 by Thomas M. Wagner.

[This review contains mild spoilers.]

Coalescent is an original and often disturbing drama that weaves humanity's past, present, and future into a complex posthuman tapestry. It takes its time revealing all its secrets, much like you might experience if you led an archaeological dig into the deep underground crypts in which much of the story is set. It just breaks my heart that Stephen Baxter let it get away from him in its final hundred pages.

Three tales are spun here. In one, George Poole, a disenchanted forty-something Londoner settling his father's affairs after the old man's death, comes upon evidence that he had a twin sister given up at a very young age to some cult in Rome called the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. George, seeking some closure and perhaps feeling that his uneventful life could do with an event or two, promptly goes about searching for any information he can find on this lost sibling.

In the second story thread we visit the Order itself, which turns out to be nothing like a cult at all. Instead it is a full-fledged secret society of women whose roots go back to the fourth century, when it was led by Regina, a distant ancestor of George's. The Order specializes in education and genealogy, and, deep within the bowels of its underground complex (expanded from original Roman Christian catacombs), they have for centuries been engaged in a radical form of selective breeding that puts the Nazi eugenics programs to shame.

The sole purpose of this activity, initiated by Regina, is to perpetuate the Order itself, in a way that would prevent its original bloodlines from becoming any more diluted than necessary. (Shades of the Bene Gesserit.) Indeed, very few of the girls who now belong to the Order even reach puberty, maintaining a childlike physiology well into adulthood. Girls who do experience their menarche become candidates for the position of matres, essentially broodmares who carry on the business of populating the Order with its next generations. And these women have remarkably swift gestation periods.

One of these girls is Lucia, who reaches puberty at 15 and is nominated by Rosa Poole, George's sister, to be one of the new matres. Lucia has a rebellious streak in her alien to most of her "sisters", and has already raised Rosa's ire by trying to date a boy from the outside. When she is finally (to put it in blunt, honest terms) bred, and finds herself becoming pregnant repeatedly despite having only had sex the one time, fear and desperation take hold and she makes plans to flee the Order.

The third story thread is the historical tale of Regina from childhood to her death, as she flees chaotic post-Roman Britain — where she spends some years as consort to the warlord Artorius — for what is left of Rome in the years before the Vandals invade and the empire comes to an end once and for all. Here, Regina takes over leadership of the fledgling Order (which had originated with the Vestal Virgins before Christianity set up shop). Regina's character study is the most compelling in the book. She is a woman more often unlikable than likable, but Baxter compellingly and convincingly depicts how a life of hardship, coming on the heels of a pampered childhood, has hardened her into a survivor of unparalleled determination. Regina is single-minded in her intent to forge ahead and adapt to circumstances, and the only relics from her past she carries are three little household goddess statuettes called, it just so happens, the matres. Indeed, her instinct for survival often prompts her into heartless and calculating actions; she actually trades her daughter's sexual services to secure passage to Rome from Britain. But it's also this instinct for survival that informs her leadership of the Order, and her ideas about the preservation of bloodlines that becomes the Order's m.o. in the subsequent centuries. Baxter's triumph here is in making this largely unsympathetic protagonist sympathetic and fascinating all the same.

George, unfortunately, is much less interesting. He's emotionally immature and compulsive (indeed Baxter has George's ex-wife deride him as "anal" when they take a walking tour of London and he actually checks off landmarks on his map), and his quest for Rosa is motivated by his own feelings of incompleteness. This was a deliberate characterization choice on Baxter's part, but while he managed to make Regina heroic despite her often glaring flaws, he doesn't win over your goodwill for George nearly as well.

As the climax approaches and all the modern-day stories coalesce, so to speak, Baxter sends the narrative careening off into a bizarre tangent involving a nerdy friend of George's who's into such things as UFO conspiracy theories and the like, and who thinks that the Order poses a dire threat to humanity's future. And it's upon this friend, not George, that the book's resolution hinges, which comes as something of a disappointment, and not just for the fact that the fate of the Poole family is taken out of their hands. It's mostly disappointing because Baxter has chosen to wrap up a sprawling, multilayered epic traversing sixteen centuries of time by resorting to the most banal of Hollywood clichés, to wit: that there's no problem so great you can't solve it with an explosion.

Baxter also touches upon a more overtly SFnal subplot involving a mysterious anomaly in the Kuiper Belt (seems I've read a lot of SF lately where strange things are going on in the Kuiper Belt — I had no idea it was such a happening place!) and some lab in California trying to create a black hole. But it's so thin it just feels scotch taped onto the narrative. And the surprising denouement, which flings us 20,000 years (!) into the future, and suggests that hive-like societies such as the Order are humanity's inevitable evolutionary direction, seems to come from a different book entirely and fails to convince.

There is clearly too much hard work, research, and intelligent speculation in Coalescent to make it a book to dismiss. But it's only with serious reservations that I can recommend it. I think that Baxter — never a writer to piddle around in the shallow end of the pool — tried to tackle too much here. The story of Regina, her descendants, and the strange society of the Order was complex and engrossing enough without Baxter's needing to throw in so many potboilerish thriller elements. (Not to mention a cheesy space opera coda with lots of raygun carnage.) Maybe in the sequel, he will merge his endless flow of ideas into a final product that's just a bit more coalescent.

Followed by Exultant.