Stephen Baxter is the leading contemporary science fiction writer and the equal of any of the past greats of the genre: he can pack more Big Ideas into a single novel than some SF writers manage in a whole career, and even his turkeys - Moonseed and The Light of Other Days, say - still manage to pass muster in a genre that is, in the words of Nick Lowe, 'absolutely addicted to crappiness'.
In Coalescent we follow the adventures of one George Poole, a middle-aged IT professional who, while finalising his late father's estate, discovers that he has a long-lost twin sister. This girl, Rosa, was sent away as a child to join a religious order in Rome, and Poole, in mid-life crisis mode, determines to track her down. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, Poole's remote ancestress, a Romano-Briton of the 5th Century, escapes the anarchy of Sub-Roman Britannia, travels to Rome and founds a religious order...
Is this science-fiction? Well, yes, it is, when written by Baxter. Poole's investigation into the very weird indeed Puissant Order of Saint Mary Queen of Virgins allows the author to address some favourite themes: political and social decadence, the Fermi Paradox, privacy (the lack thereof), evolution, humans-as-aliens and, of course, Cosmic Destiny. We also get a fascinating and scary new Baxter theme, eusociality (don't look it up, you'll spoil the story). plus an insight that may be very disturbing to internet users!
What we don't get is the Baxterian Cosmic Angst that had become a depressing feature of his stories. Coalescent has, to my mind, a hopeful ending. It also has well-drawn characters, although they're not particularly likable ones. Poole is stereotypical cult-fodder - intelligent, well-educated and directionless; Peter is the grown up school weirdo and Regina is just plain repugnant. It's difficult to care about these people (as is so often the case with Baxter's characters), so it's the intriguing plot that keeps one turning the pages; and even that is a bit flabby - I found myself skipping paragraphs and even whole pages with no discernable loss of signal.
Baxter is, as always, the master of his source materiel, the 'invisible literature' of scientific papers, speculative articles and obsessive geek websites where the ideas that will shape the future make their first unheralded appearance. He mixes this stuff into his stories with such effortless authority that even readers who share Baxter's interests will wonder where the science ends and the fiction starts. Having said that, I'm curious to know what his sources are for the pagan revival in post Roman Britain: the one thing Gildas did not accuse his contemporaries of was apostasy.
Coalescent is the most enjoyable Stephen Baxter hard SF I've read for a while, and I'd recommend it as a good place for newbies to start, though I must say that I enjoyed the story all the more because of the subtle links to the fabulous Xeelee sequence!