The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Cold As Ice

Just finished reading ‘Anti-Ice’ by Stephen Baxter, my favourite living science fiction author. I’ve included a list of his most excellent books at the bottom of this blog by way of a recommendation.

Anti-Ice, though, I would hesitate to recommend. It’s one of his first novels, and for some reason it has never been published in the UK. I can only guess it’s because of either contractual reasons, or because SB wasn’t altogether happy with it and would prefer it not to be generally available. That doesn’t seem very likely, though, given that he links to it on Amazon on his website.

The premise of the book is extremely strong; in the mid-19th century, British explorers have discovered some debris at the South Pole, a strange substance with the explosive force of Uranium but which acts as a superconductor when frozen. This discovery has sent history off onto a different course, as the anti-ice leads to developments in transport, industry and, of course, weapons. It’s not a ‘steampunk’ novel exactly, because SB has tried to make the science plausible, but nevertheless its main conceit is what-if 19th century technology and politics were supercharged?

But unfortunately that premise isn’t really fulfilled. The book starts well, in the Crimean war, and we get some enjoyable ‘world-building’ as we visit the Great Exhibition... but even then, SB’s prose is not as vivid as in his later work. Part of the problem is that the novel is written in a rather formal, rather dry 19th century style. An approach that SB would pull off extremely well in The Time Ships, but here, it has a distancing effect, as so much of the novel is characters talking exposition in a very stiff and unrealistic manner.

The other problem is that the middle three-quarters of the book concerns a rocket flight to the moon, which is hard work for two reasons. Firstly, it means the characters are locked in a tin box for much of the story, so – as I just mentioned – a lot of the world-building is off-stage and talked about rather than seen. And secondly, it’s that the rocket flight isn’t particularly exciting; it reminded me of CS Lewis’ Out Of The Silent Planet, in that it basically reprises From The Earth To The Moon and The First Men In The Moon without adding anything new. Admittedly the science is more up-to-date, and the character of Traveller is an entertaining pastiche of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger, but there’s still a very dull space-walk scene, a very dull weightlessness-scene, a very dull how-we-navigate-in-space scene...

Eventually they do return to Earth and things liven up a bit, but by that point I get the feeling that SB was getting a bit fed up with the novel. Indeed, my generally impression is of an author who has come up with a synopsis, sold it, and then found, in writing it, that he’s locked himself into telling a dull story. Because this book doesn’t really give SB an opportunity to show off his imagination; there’s a few pages on a strange, anti-ice-based crystalline-mushroom-clam species that has evolved on the dark side of the moon, but which turns out to have very little to do with the rest of the book, and even then, isn’t particularly clearly-described. I sense SB’s impatience with his own plot when, after having spent 150-odd pages describing a trip to the moon, he dispenses with the return trip – and a descent through the Earth’s atmosphere – in a couple of paragraphs. And having characters deduce the novel’s closing plot-twist half-way through suggests an author realising that perhaps that closing plot-twist is a touch on the extremely predictable side, and he would be better off lowering expectations than building up to it.

Still, an interesting novel, but if you want to read a great SB book, choose one from this list:

The Time Ships
The Light Of Other Days
The H-Bomb Girl