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Riding The Rock
Stephen Baxter
PS Publishing paperback £8 / $14

review by Duncan Lawie

Riding The Rock is a new novella set in Baxter's long running Xeelee sequence with an introduction, by Gregory Benford, which is a classic example of the foreword that should be read afterwards. The story is set some 18,000 years after Reality Dust [see Futures -Ed], and so even further beyond our own era. At this point Baxter's future history, humanity seem to have control over the outer arms of the galaxy, but a long period of war between us and the Xeelee continues due to their dominance of the galactic centre. The central character is Luca, a novice in the Commission for Historical Truth, which is now the central power running human activity. Luca is drawn into an investigation of a heresy - in that any form of religion appears to be heresy - amongst the fighting soldiers through an infatuation for one of their captains. He travels with his superior in the Commission and is taught much about the nature of the human empire - and his own nature - whilst learning about life on the frontline.
   The action transfers to the region of conflict, providing spectacular scenery in the dense star-birthing regions. The weapons of both forces are also neatly described in hard science terms, though the tactics take some believing. Eventually, Luca finds himself digging his own trench. The idea of soldiers going 'over the top' works as an allegory but it weakens the depiction of fighting life, which is otherwise managed well. It also highlights the clichés that Baxter has employed to provide an access to the meaningful discussions he wants to have.
   The story's theme is a questioning of what it means to be human, a standard science fictional subject but the issues on this occasion are rather less subtle than in such pieces as Reality Dust. This novella investigates the effect of institutionalising inhumanity and what difference this makes when it is humans who control the process. The apparent position of the human high command is simple: with an implacably alien enemy, whatever we do to win the battle will constitute what humanity is and if the humans lose, then there is no-one left to be human, let alone humane. Opposed to this perspective is the natural criticism of becoming like one's enemy. Luca is forced to start thinking about such matters, to confront the scale of any war. As such, the novella is a 'coming of age' tale but we do not get to see what conclusions Luca will make. Instead, the reader is left to face the same issues.
   If the story is considered as another data point in the Xeelee future history, those familiar with the larger canvas will get good value from apparently throwaway lines. As always, Baxter writes well and convincingly, so at this level too the book is enjoyable. However, it doesn't quite work as an investigation of issues.
Riding The Rock
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