“The comet swam out of the dark.”
Stephen Baxter is terrifyingly prolific as an author. Since 1991, he seems to have produced at least one novel a year, and in many cases two or three. If these were short novellas one might be less in awe of him, but they are all enormous, well-researched pieces of science fiction. Indeed, I’ve only read four of his tomes and already that means I’ve clocked up 2,182 pages of his writing. I first came to him with his novel Flood, and its sequel Ark, and later fell for his huge, sprawling blockbuster Evolution. I arrive now on the shores of Doggerland, almost ten thousand years before present day, reading myself onto a coast no living human has ever seen.
Doggerland, or as it’s known in the book, Northland, is the bridge that connects Britain to Europe and disappeared several thousand years ago when it was swallowed up by rising sea levels, cutting the British Isles off from the main continent. Ana is fourteen and is about to undergo her bloodtide, the time in which a child becomes an adult and is chosen by their Other. She is assisted by her grandmother and sister, but more than anything she misses her father, who disappeared months ago while out fishing. At her bloodtide, her Other is declared by the priest to be the owl, a bad omen – a symbol of death.
The small community of Etxelur is shaken when members of the nearby Pretani tribe come to stay, with the possibility of seeking out wives, and soon numbers expand futher as Ana’s father returns with a young woman, Ice Dreamer, in tow from a legendary continent far off to the west, and a slave boy, Novu, from the strange walled city of Jericho join the ranks of the peaceful Northlanders. Everything changes however when the sea turns against its people and a tsunami washes across the village, destroying everything and killing countless members of the community. Ana is left in charge of her people, and she comes to a staggering conclusion: if Jericho can build a wall to keep people out, it surely wouldn’t be impossible to build one to keep the sea out? Her dreams and then her actions will shape the course of history, and lead Earth down a very different path to the one that occured in our history.
As always with Baxter, the book is enormous and appears daunting, but the language flows, the setting and characters are engaging, and you find yourself pulled along willingly as the plot swims around you and tangles itself up in its embrace. Baxter is notable for long passages that contain no dialogue and just describe the world in immense detail, but even these aren’t dull. He paints a fascinating and vivid picture of a world long gone and, to our history at least, mostly never having existed.
His real skill though is how he builds up the various human factions. Each one feels distinct and identifiable. The Northlanders are mostly a matriarchal tribe who each have an animal spirit that guides them. The snailheads engage in artificial cranial deformation by giving themselves pointed heads, and name themselves after body parts (Knuckle, Cheek, Eyelid, etc). The Bone People wear the bones of their ancestors as accessories. The Pretani, who resemble the Picts of ancient Britain, are aggressive and give themselves tree-centric names (Root, Bark, Acorn, etc), and they live in fear of the Leafy Boys, mute green-stained denizens of the canopies who attack anyone who gets in their way. Naming conventions also are particularly obvious with the True People (Ice Dreamer, Dolphin Gift, Moon Reacher, etc) and the People of the Great Eel (Wise, True, Honest, etc). The fact that we also see the world’s people as being in different stages of development is also great, and factually correct. Indeed, while those in America are hunter-gatherers, those on the European coasts have become fishermen, but the Middle East already had cities.
The book starts with disparate people but quickly brings them together so we can witness our ancestors (or rather, our ancestors in this timeline) doing what humans do best: being human. As with any era, humans are flawed and troubled, as once we developed sapience we also begun to experience love, jealousy, anger, fear, hatred and a hundred other emotions. These things are not new, and these people can feel them just as strongly as we do now. They are different from us in many ways, but they are also incredibly like us.
A beautiful work of art, and an engaging story. There are two sequels, Bronze Summer and Iron Winter, which leap further ahead in time to see what becomes of this world that contains a whole new patch of land that we lost early on. I’m interested to see what will become of Ana’s people over time.