I think Stephen Baxter is the best Science Fiction writer living in England today, and I base that opinion on absolutely nothing whatsoever.
I mean, I don't clamor around like some mangy anglophile, waiting at the docks for the latest installment of Dickens' new book, just so I can find out what happened to little Nell. I really don't read all that much English SF, so I don't have much to compare Baxter to. And now that I think about it, I guess I actually prefer J.G. Ballard as an SF writer. So, thinking about it objectively now, I guess I'd have to say that Baxter is the second best SF writer in England, right behind Ballard, which seems only right and fitting, since they fit that way alphabetically as well. One might assume that Clarke would hold third place in my estimation, since I can only really think of three English SF writers at the moment, but since two of them are dead, I return to my original assertion: Among English writers that I can think of at the moment, and who aren't dead, Baxter is definitely the best. This morning.
Neither here nor there, but Clarke doesn't even make my list. He's the most boring, self-righteous, over-rated fop I've ever read. His books are the worst sort of unimaginative claptrap, and we'll leave the allegations of pedophilia that have more or less consigned him to exile in Sri Lanka for the last thirty years aside for the moment. I don't care if Clarke did come up with the concept of the Communications satellite – someone else would have come up with it eventually, as it's useful. And it's not like he built the first communications satellite, he just thought it up and then sat on his loathsome ass doing nothing about it for the next thirty years. And in fact, he likely wasn't even the first one to think it up, just the first to write it down in English. And even if he was the first, that doesn't change the fact that Odyssey III was a very very bad book.
But I haven't called you here today to discuss my semi-irrational hatred of Mr. Clarke (Though that's kind of fun), rather I've decided to discuss someone I have a semi-irrational fondness for, Mr. Stephen Baxter. I've now read three novels by Baxter: Voyage, The Time Ships, and the subject of this review, Moonseed. All of them have sort of the same failings – dry characterizations, plodding development, slow plots, and a lot of technical exposition. These are things I would ordinarily fault a writer for, but with Baxter, it's an asset. Yes, the man's dialog is flat, yes, his female characters come across as bitchy and annoying, and yes, for an English writer who mostly writes about American characters, he really gets the conversational idioms all wrong. Even so none of this really detracts from his appeal, and perhaps it even adds to it. Because what Baxter is all about is wild-eyed awe, and some of is flat-footedness in the telling makes the gee-gosh-wow aspects of his books just that much more inspiring to behold, if that makes any kind of sense.
Beyond all that, Baxter shares the unabashed love for the Apollo Program that I, myself have, and a generalized lack of regard for the space program since 1975; including - but not limited to - a loathing for the Space Shuttle. So not only does he have Geek Creds, he's got Geek Creds that almost specifically jibe with my own.
Moonseed is easily the weakest of his books that I've read, but it's not without it's charms. The plot is made to order from all those old Disaster SF movies of the 50s, like "When Worlds Collide" or "Day of the Trifids." (The latter actually gets a name check in the novel.) Essentially, Apollo 18*, the final mission to the moon in 1973, discovers a rock sample which, 30 years later, unleashes untold devastation upon the world. First the planet Venus explodes, apparently for no reason. Then it seems that Lunar sample rock's got living superstring material confined within itself. If you don't understand what that means, don't worry, the book has plenty of quantum physics doubletalk to make it seem plausible. Anyway, due to bad quarantine practices in a lab, this quantum plague escapes in the environs of Edinburgh, Scotland, where it is named "Moonseed" by a local doomsday cult. Hence the title.
Anywhoo, in typical disaster movie fashion, we have a plucky visiting scientist who hooks up with a local woman as his love interest. It seems he's the only one that really understands the problem, but no one will really listen to him until it's too late, and the world is doomed. In fairly short order, the Moonseed gobbles up Scotland, separating Henry, the scientist, from his pictish lady love and her son. Earthquakes break out all over the world, volcanoes erupt as the moonseed sinks into the earth's mantle and, well, eats it. Quickly people begin to realize that what happened to Venus is happening to Earth.
The centerpiece of the novel is a return expedition to the moon which is rapidly clabbered together by the US and Russian space agencies to figure out why the Moonseed hasn't already destroyed it the way it did Venus. This is not your typical movie version of 'well, let's use a big rocket we just happen to have laying around for emergencies such as this' kind of cliché. Rather, they make no bones about the fact that we haven't been to the moon for 30 years, and have no way to get back.
Emergencies breed all kinds of inventiveness, and in a highly realistic and detailed way, a mission to the moon is cobbled together in a bit more than five weeks. This involves the ISS, two Soyuz spacecraft, three shuttle launches, and the commandeering of two space probes from a canceled Lunar Prospector mission. It's not nearly as pretty or sexy as the old Apollo program, however its last-ditch fly by night nature is its charm. On the moon, the Expedition realizes that the reason the Moonseed hasn't eaten the moon yet is because..., well, it's complicated. Suffice to say the Moon is stable because of something that happened when it was formed 4 billion years ago. Stuff happens, people die, and the survivors of the expedition get stranded on the moon for a year before they're rescued and make their way home again. By the time that happens, the moon is transformed, in a scene reminiscent of the movie Total Recall, into a haven for humanity.
The denouement is a series of episodes, each set about a decade apart, chronicling the exodus from earth, the dotage of our characters, the actual, physical, literal End of the World, and a brief glimpse of life for the remnant of humanity on the moon, circa 2054. For a book chronicling the deaths of some 7 billion people and the explosion of the earth, all of this is surprisingly upbeat. This is not to say that it doesn't have some of the same flavor and scale of terror I used to get from the rolling nightmares I had when I was an adolescent.
TECHNICAL WRITING STUFF:
As with Disaster novels, this book follows a small core of characters personal struggles through the midst of the much larger global higgledy piggledy**. This consists mostly of Henry and his girlfriend Jane and her family, who mostly fall prey to various facets of the disaster, ten little Indians style. Henry's utterly unsympathetic ex-wife, who conveniently happens to be an astronaut is also a significant protagonist, but clearly second banana to Henry. Scads of minor characters, such as the Prime Minister of England, or various NASA personages, are introduced fairly substantially as important people, for no really good reason as most of them are apparently forgotten about later on. We're told one character became PM eventually, and was thereafter executed for Crimes Against Humanity; another dies in a shuttle launch during the Exodus; but these are off-stage things heard about on the radio that don't affect our characters a whit.
One gets the feeling these were avenues Baxter intended to explore more fully, but didn't because of time constraints, or space, or it simply wasn't very interesting in retrospect so it got cut. Whatever. In addition to this, there's the always annoying Disaster Novel Cliché of picking up one-shot characters in random locations, and following them going about their normal lives for a chapter before… dum-da-duhm! Disaster strikes. Other more interesting disasters are more or less only mentioned in passing, as is most of the breakdown of social order as the pace of the Moonseed advances. To be fair, most of this happens while Henry and Ex are on the moon, but it would have been nice to hear more about the Nuclear Suicide Bombing that took out the UN, or the war in the middle east, or what have you. I could have done with 30 less pages about a reporter in Seattle who serves no purpose other than disaster fodder, and a bit more about, I dunno, really anything interesting I guess.
There's also a couple characters who sort of blur the lines between protagonist and Disaster Fodder. For instance, Arkady, the Cosmonaut on the lunar expedition, is pretty much forgettable, except for one truly touching scene where, right during the preparations for something he knows the whole world depends on, he stops for a moment and prays. I re-read that scene three times to try and figure it out. I'm not sure if we're supposed to believe he was an atheist who felt 'what the hell, it couldn't hurt' or if we're being told that he was, all along, a secret Christian. Either way, it was a very authentic display of religious sentiment, and it raised the hairs on the back of my neck for a moment.
The book is an entertaining read, full of the typical trenchant insights into NASA (There's an in-joke about how unpopular Sally Ride was, even among other female astronauts), and a few semi-obscured gags about politics. (Though never named, I think we're supposed to believe the President is Hillary Clinton, who, in apparent family tradition, is currently under investigation for sexual misconduct in office) I imagine I'd get more of these if I was English.
In short, the book feels rushed, and the disaster premise is really just an excuse to cobble together another trip to the moon, which is really what the story is subliminally about. Then, after the lunar Nirvana, the whole thing shifts gears and sort of transcends itself, if only for a tiny bit.
In the end, it's a potboiler, and not one of Baxter's best, but that doesn't make it bad, it's just not the book you'd want to recommend to your friends to really sell them on the guy (That would be "Voyage"). But it's still a nice find for someone who's already a fan, as I am. I don't feel cheated for having read it, and some of those images will remain in my head, long after I've forgotten the lesser gutworks of the book, sort of the same way some of the images of – let's pick a Philip K. Dick potboiler at random here – "The Penultimate Truth" have remained in my mind as powerful totems fifteen years after I've forgotten what the hell that story was about. Something about time-traveling Indians, I think. Oh well.
In any event, this is probably the Baxter book best suited to the big screen, more dramatic and effects-laden than the others, so, if you don't feel the need to read the damn thing, just sit back and wait for Hollywood to come culturally strip-mining again, and eventually this'll probably be the book you see on the silver screen.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?
Guardedly, I think not. On the one hand, there's some slight American Liberal bashing, and more broad slams on the shortsightedness of politicians in general. On the other hand, there's a significant subplot about a child molester that serves no real purpose and is just creepy. So I don't think most of our people will like it, but I don't think it misses by much.
*- In fact, the final mission to the moon was Apollo 17, launched on 12/7/72. I was there, watching the launch. I was only 5 at the time, but it made an impact on me. The Apollo 18, 19, and 20 expeditions were planned, and the hardware was already built, but they were cancelled for budgetary reasons which, in retrospect, seem pretty damn stupid.
** - Higgledy Piggledy means "A real mess."