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In Association with
Stone Spring
Stephen Baxter
Gollancz paperback �12.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

The 19th century Tory historian Thomas Carlyle commented in his book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship And The Heroic In History (1888), that the "history of the world is but the biography of great men." Carlyle believed that the tide of history could be turned by the appearance of great and heroic people whose charisma, vision, and political nous, allowed them to radically alter the social realities around them. According to Carlyle, had the likes of Napoleon, Luther or Mohammed not been born then chances are that the French revolutionary wars, the Reformation and the expansion of Islam would never have happened.

An alternative view of these 'great men' is that they are merely the focal points for utterly impersonal social and cultural forces. Under this view, had Napoleon Bonaparte not stepped forward to take his position in history then another young intelligent and ambitious French artillery officer would most likely have taken his place. This idea of people embodying social trends is an intriguing one as it runs largely contrary to the idea that humans are built from the inside-out as self-contained subjectivities forced into the objective world.

Stephen Baxter's Stone Spring - the first instalment in the 'Northland' trilogy - is a book that presents us with a cast of characters that are built from the outside-in. Far from being isolated pockets of subjectivity in an objective universe; Baxter's protagonists are entirely defined by their relationships to other people. This unconventional vision of human nature allows Baxter to create a novel in which the confrontation between two radically different Stone Age cultures is both an epic clash of civilisations and a deeply personal and intensely bitter confrontation between childhood friends.

Stone Spring opens in the city-state of Etxelur. Once a powerful and wealthy people, the citizens of Etxelur are now leaderless, impoverished and reduced to relying upon old alliances and traditions brokered in better times with more wealthy and powerful peoples who now resent Etxelur's airs of cultivation and technological superiority. This uneasy state is wonderfully conveyed by the arrival of envoys from the forest-dwelling Pretani whose swaggering otherness suggests that Etxelur's supposedly superior levels of cultivation are, when divorced from economic or military power, just the same kind of superstitions and received opinions that define all cultures:

"They looked around. They just ignored the women. There was snow on their shoulders and their boots. Under fur cloaks they wore tunics of heavy, stiff hide, not cloth as the Etxelur women wore. The boys dumped their packs on the floor's stone flags, kicked at pallets stuffed with dry bracken, walked around the peat fire in the big hearth, tested the strength of the house's sloping wooden supports by pushing at them with their shoulders, and jabbered at each other in their own guttural language. To Ana it was as if two bear cubs had wandered into the house." [page 9]

Their leader (the 'Giver') having disappeared on a fishing expedition, the people of Etxelur are left under the nominal leadership of his daughters Ana and Zesi who are also forced to play hostesses to Shade and Gall, the eldest sons of the chief of the Pretani (the 'Root'). The fact that there are two brides for two brothers is far from accidental but with the Giver lost at sea, the potential union between Pretani and Etxelur falls apart in spectacular style when the younger brother and older sister get it together, prompting Zesi to leave Etxelur in order to prove her worth to the Pretani Root by participating in their annual hunt.

However, while Zesi is away in Pretani, a distant slice of thawing glacier falls into the sea causing a tsunami to slam into northern Europe resulting in the destruction of many homelands and the deaths of countless thousands. As only available daughter of the Giver, Ana finds herself thrust into a position of authority. Suddenly, Ana's sense of alienation from her culture becomes a real strength as her ability to befriend refugees from North America and Jericho means that Etxelur now has access to new forms of knowledge.

With Etxelur facing catastrophe and Ana the only person capable of leading the tribe, a great project is undertaken. A project to protect Etxelur from the rising sea by building huge walls that will also allow Etxelur to reclaim land already lost to the sea. Far from being a great technological leap forward, Baxter presents this project as Etxelur reconnecting with its roots. Roots that burrow deep into a mysterious past in which Etxelur may well have been much more technologically and socially advanced than it currently is. Baxter beautifully conveys this sense of reconnection by having some of the characters wander around a seabed that has been temporarily emptied of water and turned into a surreal dreamland by the on-coming tsunami:

"Giddy with the heat, Dreamer shook her head and tried to think. Did sea creatures build houses? Did oaks grow underwater? Surely not. She remembered Kirike's talk of the precious lode of flint, creamy and flawless, lost under the risen waters of the bay south of Flint Island. Maybe, then, today was not the first time the sea had behaved strangely. Maybe before, perhaps long ago, it had risen up and covered over these trees, these houses, like that precious flint lode." [page 231]

As a real great wave smashes into Etxelur, a great wave of emotion breaks over the Pretani homeland. These two great waves break the four siblings and remoulds them into the shape required by history: Shade becomes the brutal and expansionistic Root of the Pretani while Ana becomes the utterly ruthless but visionary Giver of Etxelur. Meanwhile, Gall is reduced to the status of a Girardian criminal scapegoat whose death enables social change while Zesi becomes an embittered and isolated woman held unfairly by Shade to be responsible for the death of his family, while (equally unfairly) holding herself responsible for the deaths that occurred in Etxelur while she was away.

The book's three main characters are all shaped by their positions in society and the social networks of which they are members. Pretani is a monolithic and authoritarian society composed of absolute social hierarchies enforced by physical strength, while Etxelur is a multicultural society that owes its strength not to military might but to a willingness to engage and trade with the peoples from other cultures. As leaders of these different societies, the book's protagonists take on the personalities required of leaders. As a more open society, Etxelur even comes to use both Ana and Zesi to embody the different voices and tendencies existing within its culture with Ana representing multicultural engagement with the world while Zesi represents the more isolationist desire to cling to the older and more established ways of being:

"I don't - care - what that woman says. I've had enough of her. And Novu, that other stranger you spend all your time with. What a waste of time it all is! Stars and legends! Mounds of earth! Bones under the sea! The people should be fishing. Hunting. Gathering the last acorns and hazelnuts" [page 292]

If one approaches Stone Spring with a traditional inside-out understanding of human nature and action then one is bound to wind up frustrated. Shade is initially presented as a more sympathetic and humane person than his swaggering brother Gall but he is destined to become the tyrannical leader of a civilisation bent upon enslaving the world. Similarly, Zesi is a troubled but ultimately warm-hearted young woman who not only precipitates numerous deaths and wars but comes to lead the terrifyingly savage orphan tribe known as the Leafy Boys.

If looked at from the inside-out then these characters make little sense. Baxter never digs that deeply into their internal lives and so many of their motivations remain confusing and almost arbitrary. However, the opacity of Baxter's characters is born not of poor writing but of a desire to show us one of the central challenges facing humanity. Baxter sees humanity as a species in a constant state of war with itself. Trapped between two poles of being that are equally dehumanising and equally unpalatable: At one end of the spectrum lies engagement with the world...

To engage with the world is not merely to think about it or understand it but to become a vessel and a conduit for its truths. Truths which must out. The pressures of this pole are evident in the actions of many of Baxter's characters. For example, in Coalescent (2003), Regina embodies the need for her DNA to survive. In order to allow her DNA to continue, Regina creates a hive-liked society that is utterly inhuman but perfectly adapted for the propagation of a single strain of DNA.

Similarly, in the 'Xeelee' cycle's Raft (1991), and Flux (1993), Baxter's protagonists are projected into a dangerous and alien world by the need for humanity to adapt to a looming environmental catastrophe. Characters such as these are gripped by the needs of their species. Their willingness to turn the established order upside down and to alienate themselves from those around them makes them seem inhuman to us. This inhumanity is due to the fact that these characters are created from the outside-in and not the inside-out. They embody social pressures. They are defined by them.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the desire to withdraw from the world and seek shelter in the certainties and hierarchies that constitute not the objective reality of the world but the more subjective and malleable social realities that humans create around them. For Baxter, to retreat into such certainties constitutes the wholesale denial of reality and thus is indistinguishable from madness.

When the teenagers in Ark (2009) announced that they do not believe that they are on a spaceship, their retreat into a comforting social reality is so utterly alien that they appear deranged and inhuman. The same is also true of the Planners in Ring (1994), who would rather see their human charges dead than admit that their socially useful myths are no longer required.

Baxter perfectly articulates this central tension in the moment when Zesi realises that she cannot win the people of Etxelur round to her side through argument and so she engineers the death of a child in order to shatter Ana's careful network of alliances:

"'I did it because of Ana,' Zesi said, breathless, looking shocked at her own handiwork. 'Because nobody would listen. I did it for everybody in Etxelur -'" [page 316]

Zesi's crime makes little sense when looked at as the action of a character built from the inside-out but if one sees it instead as the actions of a character trapped between her internal demons and the needs of the society she inhabits then her actions seem not only logical but necessary. The Pretani and Etxelur are too powerful and too different to co-exist peacefully, and so a war must take place between them. In order for a war to take place, both Shade and Ana must be forced to act. Zesi's actions and relationships to Ana and Shade serve to lubricate the wheels of war.

Unable and unwilling to deal with her inner demons, Zesi is forced into the world but once in the world she becomes dehumanised by the pressures of the social forces that act through her. She is defined by her role as the emotional link between two leaders who still possess enough sense and humanity to resist the power of their roles to define them. Indeed, it is only when Shade and Ana surrender utterly to the demands of their roles that they not only become inhuman but they begin to de-humanise the people and cultures around them by instituting slavery.

This vision of human nature as a zone of conflict between inhuman forces is a fascinating one as it is one that stands in quite marked contrast with a similarly conflicted picture of human nature that exists in other works of prehistoric fiction. In his excellent critical history of the prehistoric fiction (PF) genre, Fire In The Stone: Prehistoric Fiction From Charles Darwin To Jean M. Auel (2009), Nicholas Ruddick points out that one of the central themes of PF has long been the representation of humanity as a creature trapped between savagery and civilisation.

Indeed, while many recent works of SF have dealt with how humanity might overcome itself in order to become post-human ('The Rapture of the Nerds'), Ruddick argues that PF has frequently concerned itself with how humans have overcome their base instincts in order to attain the relatively exalted state they currently inhabit. Fascinatingly, Baxter does not present 'hominization' (to use Roddick's term) as a question of conceptual breakthroughs or evolutionary 'levelling-up' but rather as an on-going challenge facing us all.

According to Baxter, humanity is not something that can be achieved once and for all; rather it is something that we must constantly seek both in ourselves and in others. We must overcome the urge to paint people of other cultures as other and we must reconcile our position as creatures forever torn between the Scylla of superstitious introversion and the Charybdis of surrendering utterly to the demands of the world. Indeed, the desire to reclaim the other as human runs throughout Baxter's Xeelee cycle, Manifold trilogy, and Destiny's Children sequence, as creatures as diverse as ape-men, computer simulations and minute humanoids living on the surface of stars are all recognised as possessing a common humanity and kinship with homo sapiens.

In Stone Spring, as in Baxter's Time's Tapestry sequence, it is a priest who best manages to overcome this challenge by fulfilling the demands placed upon him as a priest but without ever forgetting the need for comforting truths and human understanding. Jurgi the priest is one of the most fascinating characters in the book precisely because he retains his humanity while many of the characters around him begin to lose theirs:

"'She's a troubled spirit', he said grimly. 'But... I saw her grow up. She respected me, then. Now she's the woman who took me from my partner, and she is the mother of my unborn child, and she is the beating heart of the new Etxelur. How am I supposed to deal with such a being?'" [page 418]

However, even if one sets aside the rich and thought-provoking human drama that dominates much of the novel's foreground, Stone Spring remains a compellingly realised work of fiction. The book's narrative is driven by a series of exquisitely realised and horrifyingly memorable set-pieces that serve to periodically re-launch the narrative and prevent the book from descending into the kind of soap operatics that often arise from narratives driven by relationship issues.

These set-pieces not only constitute a significant improvement upon some of the lacklustre efforts presented in Baxter's catastrophe novel Flood (2008), they also seem better integrated into the bulk of the novel thanks to Baxter's evocation of a wonderfully earthy and gritty atmosphere. Indeed, Stone Spring is a novel in which you are never more than a few pages from someone shitting, pissing, farting, or brandishing their cock like an angry purple spear. From such filth and squalor flows real human emotion and from such emotion flows not only the book's drama but also its set-pieces.

As veteran Baxter readers may have worked out, Stone Spring does not really offer us anything that we have not seen from him before. The themes of hominization, engagement with the world, ecological catastrophe, and even the (pre-)historical setting are all very much a part of what characterises a 21st century Stephen Baxter novel. In fact, I very nearly gave this novel a miss as a novel about the flooding of Doggerland seemed too much like a combination of Flood with the Time's Tapestry series.

What keeps Baxter's fiction so fresh and such a joy to behold is the feeling that, while he may be returning again and again to many of the same themes, he is doing so with more and more skill and more and more control. Indeed, what is most startling about Stone Spring is the way in which Baxter's traditional themes are flawlessly embedded in what is ultimately a story told on a very human scale. Much like J.G. Ballard, Stephen Baxter has struck on a set of themes and ideas that suit him perfectly and when each new novel not only sheds new light on these ideas but does so with greater style, fluency, and insight, it is impossible to consider each new novel anything other than a triumph.

Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter

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