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Book Review: “Coalescent”, by Stephen Baxter

This is not just one book, but loosely interconnected, two and a bit – a historical novel, a biological thriller and a science fiction short story – under one cover.

The historical novel is about a girl growing up in Britain in the 5th century A.D., while the Roman rule disintegrates. Now, I am not a fan of historical novels – when I’ve tried to read them a couple of times before, I’ve been disappointed by how modern the characters’ thinking was. And if I want to know about history, I’d rather read a popular history book. However, this novel did not contradict anything I’ve read about the Roman period and, in fact, added a lot of details to the picture I’ve had before. Moreover, the narrative seemed to be as real as any “true story based” fiction.

This “reality” or “believability” is part of Stephen Baker’s trademark – anybody who has ever lived in Edinburgh and wanted to brush up on their geology should try reading another of his Sci-Fi books, Moonseed, and you will never look at Arthur’s Seat with the same eyes.

But I digress, back to Coalescent.

The biological thriller, set in a near future, is a Dan Brown-escue (in a good way) story about a man looking for his long lost sister and discovering a Puissant Monastic Order led conspiracy. The most interesting detail is that at the heart of the conspiracy is biology with some emergent theory thrown in. The motto of the Order is:

      • Sisters matter more than daughters.
      • Ignorance is strength.
      • Listen to your sisters.

The first slogan struck me as being very much in line with an idea I’ve encountered in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene“, that while sisters are the closest relatives, because they share the most genetic material, their daughters’ genotype is “diluted” by the sexual partner’s genes. Therefore, for a selfish gene inside an organism it would be more logical to encourage your mother to have more children, than for the organism to reproduce. However, Stephen Baxter has replied to my letter that:

“…I’d read Dawkins, but the main influence on the biology in the book was the work of EO Wilson and his collaborators on eusociality in the insects.”

To my shame I did not know who E. O. Wilson was, so I did a little reading and discovered that he is an entomologist, specializing in the study of social insects. In his popular works (one of them recently reviewed on Bitesize Bio) he argues that humans have “eu-” (meaning true) social capabilities, including specialization. Baxter did a brilliant job extrapolating this into fiction with very entertaining and chilling results.

The science fiction story describes a very distant future, where a eusocial human society has reached a logical endgame. Unfortunately my professional disbelief, suspended for the past and present stories, crushed down on me in the end. It’s been pointed out that the problem with O. E. Wilson’s ideas is that he mechanically transfers traits found in insects to a completely different order – mammals. And even remembering about eusocial naked mole rats, it’s hard for me to believe that any amount of selective pressure in a microevolution timeframe on the un-engineered H.sapient genome can result in a two-week pregnancy or macroevolution changes – spermatheca or truly specialized ‘drones’.

But despite all this, I think that from a biologist’s point of view Coalescent is one of the most original science fiction books I’ve ever read and I would not hesitate in recommending it.

Have you read Coalescent? What did you think?

 

Book information

Title: Coalescent

Author: Stephen Baxter

ISBN-10: 0345457862

ISBN-13: 978-0345457868

 

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