Raft, Stephen Baxter

Grafton, 1991, 251 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-586-21091-1

It’s common wisdom that every overnight success takes years to attain, but it’s still a surprise to find out that such a staple of contemporary hard-SF as Stephen Baxter “merely” published his first novel in 1991. Raft (an expansion of a previous short story) is, in retrospect, a pretty good harbinger of Baxter’s later work, from the strengths to the flaws to the full plot of entire subsequent novels.

As with many such hard-SF tales, Raft is first and foremost a description of a peculiar environment and the cool things you can do in it. In this case, the entire universe is different, with a gravitational constant multiplied by some ludicrous factor. (“one billion times stronger”, argues the back cover with the supplied italics, which means business in a non-American edition) As a result, stars have a diameter of two or three kilometres, nebulae are perfectly inhabitable and humans have a perceptible gravity field. (which would logically make them pretty dirty in no time, but let’s not go there)

Cool little playground, but not if you’re Rees, a child in a tiny human group that has been stranded there for centuries, living off the cannibalized parts of its own space ship, watching helplessly as the very fabric of this particular nebulae is doomed to extinction. Our protagonist has quite the usual hard-SF hero checklist in front of him: Be curious, escape his dead-end surroundings, get an unconventional education, make a significant discovery, be thrown around in various picaresque adventures, make new friends, draw up a bold plan and save most of his people. Whew. Plus, given that he’s a teenager, he’ll have to do all of that while subject to hormonal mood swings likely to make him brilliant one moment, and whiny a few minutes later.

As a protagonist, Rees is sufficiently interesting, which may not sound like heavy praise, but actually is when considering the usual crop of hard-SF heroes, most of whom struggle to keep a distinctive name, let alone a personality. At the very least he’s all right and is curious about the universe, in a bid to allow the reader some ready-made sympathy. The novel is decently readable, with the usual hard-SF exposition ceding an appropriate place to the astronomical curiosities inherent to the heavy-gravity universe. (I have a few doubts about some inconsistencies I though I spotted in Baxter’s scenes, but as I’m not a physicists I’ll just shut up. It just may be a visualization problem, as some of the stuff is hard to imagine for non-specialists.)

Readers with an interest in Baxter’s overall career will find Raft even more fascinating given that it neatly encapsulates, in barely 250 pages, most of the themes Baxter would later re-use in somewhat longer works. The weird environments (Ring), the depressingly violent human derivatives (Manifold: Origin), the spaceborne sea creatures (Manifold: Time) and, above all, the ludicrously improbable seat-of-the-pants space programs (oh… just about everything from Titan to Moonseed). Baxter’s continuing problems with human psychology are also on display, but here we’ll follow the tacit convention of hard-SF fans and not discuss the subject any further. You can always read it as a juvenile if you want.

No matter; as a “weird environment” hard-SF novel, Raft has few things to envy to such classics as The Integral Trees and Mission of Gravity. It’s readable, interesting, decently-paced and even awe-inspiring at times. Good fun for readers with an interest in those kind of things and a most promising start for one of today’s leading hard-SF authors.

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