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on 24 July 2004
Coalescent is fascinating and flawed at the same time. And the flaw is not in the characterisation. These are rounded, interesting people. Not heroes, not perfect, not always nice, but very human (ironically, given the book's theme).
The charting of the slow and painful collapse of the roman empire in Dark Ages Britain and Europe is fascinating and evocative. The Arthurian connection is fun - a playful dig at the myth - and I like the way Ambrosius gets the upper hand.
The fatal flaw, for me, is in the structure. Baxter is running two timelines for most of the book, separated by centuries. However the present day timeline provides all the answers to the historical timeline early in the book, eliminating any possible tension. The historical timeline peters out three quarters of the way through (probably for this reason). The modern timeline swaps viewpoint several times.
Then, finally, for some bizarre reason, the author introduces a third timeline, set thousands of years in the future, right at the end of the book. You have no opportunity to get to know the characters or the setting but it distracts attention enormously from the climax, totally severing my connection with the story. A huge mistake and totally unnecessary.
The style of writing in Coalescent is fluid and assured. The basic idea is not startlingly original but is interesting and is explored proficiently - without the old sci-fi stand by of the information dump. In a way, this philosophical exploration - of the relationship between evolution and forms of social organisation (hive versus individuality) - stands in place of a more dramatic plot.
In summary: good exploration of an intriguing idea; vivid historical background; rounded characters; well written; intellectually stimulating rather than suspenseful. Disastrous structure.
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on 16 November 2010
If you're reading Baxter's Xeelee novels and stories in full 'reading order' chronology (see Baxter's website for the full list at 2009), then this is the first book you'll encounter. Be warned, though - it could be enough to put you off the whole series before you even start. About half of the book is a historical novel set in the early Dark Ages. I found the first 40 pages slow, dull, and the characters unsympathetic. Then I hit the Dark Ages, and I gave up. Sorry, Mr. Baxter, but slogging through 300 pages of Ancient Romans and Saxons was not the way I wanted to start the Xeelee time-line. So I decided to read the plot on Wikipedia (there's a detailed summary), and then skim-read the slog of the Roman / Dark Ages / Historical / Lucia sections. I still gained a good idea of the plot, and managed to pick up all the interesting ideas and the few references that make this book relevant to the Xeelee series. But then I found I was reading the final quarter of the book properly, and I found it gripping. The ideas certainly lingered. After finishing it I did a bit of research to try to determine exactly how much it ties in to the Xeelee series. It's only tied in through short sections and passing mentions, so far as I can tell: an alien artefact has been detected beyond Pluto; there's a possible detection of a 'photino bird' as it passes through the Earth; there are hints that the universe may be at war; George Poole is apparently an ancestor of a significant character later in the time-line; Poole meets his young nephew Michael Poole who narrates the next book in 2027 - Transcendent - that you'll read in the Xeelee sequence; and human hive societies are mentioned in some future books and stories.
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on 1 April 2005
Coalescent
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!
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on 18 August 2004
Some of the reviews above are a bit harsh. I read the book quickly, over a few days, because it has an interesting and fast-moving narrative. I put it down reluctantly, but not extremely reluctantly. The ancient Britain side is very well done indeed, perhaps the most plausible and interesting story I have seen of the fall of the Roman empire in Britain. But the modern side is less convincing. The author didn't convince me that the hive was a bad thing, and he should have been able to do so. It was difficult to sympathise with any of the modern characters.
The bizarre chapter at the end set thousands of years in the future was surprising. Is the author setting the scene for a sequel? That's how it reads. And is press-ganging likely to be an efficient way of manning deep-space battle fleets of the future? It strikes me as unlikely.
One of the interesting points in this book is the theme, also explored in the Absolution Gap/Redemption Space series, that the galaxy is a dangerous place and we should not be broadcasting our presence. This is a key theme for future sci-fi.
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VINE VOICEon 26 October 2006
I absolutely loved "Evolution" but Baxter's "Destiny's Children" series - of which this is the first volume - seemed far to geeky, but not judging a book by its cover is definitely good advice here because "Coalescent" is brilliant. The story involves three interconnecting threads about the evolution of mankind and civilisation; two in the modern day and one based in an apocalyptic Briton following the collapse of the Roman Empire - staggeringly epic stuff but firmly grounded by the realism of the characters and lightened up by the pure fun, page-turning thrill of the story. Its not perfect though, the central core of the story involves an order of subterranean super-women who have embarked on an alarmingly different evolutionary path to our own, and much as Baxter makes everything seem possible in his usual thought provoking way I still kind of thought it was all a bit silly (I gamely avoided the occasional gaping plot hole in an effort to keep the story alive). I'm still looking forward to seeing how the story develops though. I would recommend this to all fans of history, evolutionary science or just anyone after a superb thriller.
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on 28 November 2010
I've long been a fan of Baxter as a good hard-SF writer. Coalescent takes him a stage further - this is a genre-crossing, very human novel that marks his arrival as a good general fiction writer.

There are two parallel timelines. The first, and major, is a compelling work of historical fiction starting from the last years of Roman Britain and charting the life and times of its heroine (traumatised by the collapse of civilisation around her and determined to set up a family that will survive such incidents) and her descendents. The second is a Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy thriller set in the present day. Ultimately the two meet.

The denouement is slightly clunky and anti-climactic, but otherwise this is Baxter at his best.

At the end we have a (small) third timeline, in the far future, that shows other human coalescent colonies (a theme of the whole Destiny's Child series) and leads in to the next novel in the series (Exhultant).
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on 18 November 2007
This book frustrated me slightly to begin as it did take a long time to get into, but once I got past the first 80 pages or so I was
engrossed.

Things I especially liked were the dual connected stories set in different time periods, the toughness and ruthlessness of some of the main protagonists and the gradual build up to the hive living core element. The picure painted of ancient times was also both interesting, exciting and disturbing in terms of the violence and harsness of life.

I would say there is nothing in the way of space based SF in this book but this is more than compensated for in the remaining books of the series.

A definite thumbs up after a slow start from me...
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on 6 November 2009
This book has been on my shelf for ages, possibly even years, I'd been put off by the thickness, the fact it said book 1 and the disappointment of Baxter's collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke. I finally got round to reading it having been reassured that it was pretty standalone and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The story is an interesting one and the interleaving viewpoints are extremely well handled. There are occasions when it loses itself a little and I thought the ending was a bit shaky, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed it and may actually pick up book 2 at some point.
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on 28 September 2011
I was going to write a long review, but most of my predecessors have covered the salient points admirably. The Roman empire was described with a slant that was refreshing and appeared to be quite plausible. It was an interesting way of looking at things. The rest of the book seemed to drift, and the latter parts just didn't hold my attention. I don't like writing about plot points, so all of this is generality, but suffice to say, I felt a little let down. Don't get me wrong, the book is good, just not one of his best. I wish I could give it 3.5 stars as it quite doesn't rate a four.
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on 2 January 2008
Difficult to get into at the beginning and very drab, but once I got into the story it became more interesting. By the end, which was very exciting, I was sucked in. Anyone who hasn't read Stephen Baxter's books, I would reccomend them to read one. Though the story might be a bit alienating with big themes at the beginning, I can garantee you that you will be speeding through the pages to find out what happens at the end.
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