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Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter

1/04/2011. Contributed by Richard Palmer

Buy Stone Spring in the USA - or Buy Stone Spring in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 458 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 12.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08919-8.

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Stephen Baxter's 'Stone Spring' is the first part of a trilogy set in a long past alternate reality. Located in Doggerland – renamed Northland here – it is exploring its people’s attempt to protect themselves from environmental disaster.

The novel opens with the introduction of the main characters who are all scattered across the world. Ana is located in the settlement of Etxuler in Doggerland. Ice Dreamer is, it seems, a native to the North American continent and Novu, a young man from the city of Jericho and Shade and Gall, neighbours of the inhabitants of Etxuler and latterly, the Snailheads. They are so-called because of their practice of binding their children's heads to create elongated skulls.

Much of the earlier part of the novel is concerned with bringing all these characters together. Ice Dreamer, for example, is picked up by Ana's father who is lost in the Atlantic Ocean at the start of the novel. Novu is taken into the service of an ageing trader who is travelling to trade across Asia and Europe. 'Ageing' of course, being relative. Very few people survive into their 30s and 40s!

The ice age is ending and with this – as well as some comet strikes – the environment is being changed to more resemble the geography with which we are now familiar. The people of Etxuler have lived in this place for as long as they can remember, it is starting to become clear that this may no longer be feasible. The changes wrought by the melting of the ice are threatening to destroy the people's homes and they now have the choice of remaining and trusting themselves to fate or moving away as had the Snailheads previously. There is a third choice open to them, however.

On and off, I have been reading and enjoying Stephen Baxter's novels since his debut, 'Raft'. Many of them, though by no means all, have featured at their core high-technology and cutting edge science. This novel is actually no exception. Though by our standards the technology is low. Novu makes his way to Etxuler. As an inhabitant of the town of Jericho, he had become highly adept at the making of strong bricks. This technology turns out to be disruptive.

Some people are not keen on the idea of leaving their homes. To this end, they embark upon a project to keep the sea out and prevent Northland from being overwhelmed by the sea. This is met with no little opposition and will mean the destruction of many customs. Given that this is the first part of a trilogy, one can make a reasonable guess as to who wins out!

I've always enjoyed Baxter. His novels have a certain grandeur. They are often huge in their scope. This is actually no different. Its background isn't the solar system or a galaxy. Given the more limited geographical scope of this novel it is to be commended how well he evokes a sense of scale. To the people living in their small communities the canvas that their lives is painted across is huge.

There is certainly plenty of excitement in the novel, too. At this time it seems clear that many disputes, including familial quarrels, are settled with violence. This may not be to all tastes, but Baxter certainly does succeed in creating a proper sense of the manner in which many people's lives could be ended.

The other thing to note is that, in some of his earlier novels, Baxter's characters were not always quite so well-drawn as they may have been. This is now, I think, long behind him. He manages to evoke these people's lives extremely well.

Excellent stuff, I look forward to the next part of the trilogy.

Richard Palmer

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