My review of Stephen Baxter’s latest novel, Stone Spring, appeared at Strange Horizons on Wednesday. The lead time on this one has been rather long, and, between completing the piece and seeing it published, Jonathan McCalmont had his say on the book at The Zone. I’d earmarked it as something to come back to when my own review saw the light of day, as a sort of companion piece on this blog – and then, huzzah, Jonathan gave me an even better excuse to do so by actually commenting on it:
I was also really impressed by the way in which the characters in Stone Spring were effectively crushed beneath the weight of their positions in society. Shadow in particular is a fascinating character as he is a sensitive and introspective young man who is transformed into an imperialistic despot simply because chance results in his taking up the position of Root. There’s something very Classical in that, you could read Stone Spring almost as a tragedy.
I half agree, half disagree, with this assessment – as I do with Mr McC’s piece at The Zone. Here’s why: whilst the outside-in theory of characterisation he very usefully applies to Stone Spring is revealing and intriguing, I’m not sure it’s quite what Baxter is doing – or, rather, that it is all that is going on. I think Jonathan and I agree that Stone Spring is basically a novel about human societies, how they are formed and the ways in which they develop. It’s also a novel about how society acts upon the individual – and yet, I think, it allows more space for individual motivation, for irrational responses rather than determinist reflexes.
In my review, I describe my experience of the novel essentially as soap opera: that it wobbles at the edges, but its central characters and family dyanmics remain compelling enough to see the whole ambitious concept to safe harbour. Jonathan, too, ultimately agrees that the novel is “told on a very human scale”, but where I emphasise the continuity Baxter establishes between his Mesolithic peoples and ourselves, Jonathan points to a great chasm of self which exists between us. I like this approach, and think it leads us towards the ways in which Baxter’s prehistoric cultures are successfully alien. Yet characters in Stone Spring also talk about fundamental human nature, display strong personal (not social) attachment to family, and often follow selfish, rather than corporate, aims. Shade can be seen as the hoary good boy wronged as much as any study in social action and individual reaction. There’s a middle ground between our emphases, I think, where the true novel lies. It’s a fine work of fiction which can support both sides of the argument, though.