Books, science fiction

Some Stone Spring

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.

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2 thoughts on “Some Stone Spring

  1. Dan,

    What drew me to the idea that Baxter was using a classical approach to characterisation rather than a modern post-Shakespearean one is the fact that, while the characters are clearly conflicted about the roles they are forced to play, we never get much of a sense of why they put themselves in these positions.

    For example, why is the sister so desperate for power? why is the woman who takes over the society so ruthless? Baxter doesn’t give them very clear motivations and so I assumed that the motivations sprang not from their inner selves but rather from their structural positions in society. They are effectively anchor points through which abstract social forces connect with the world.

    The characters rage against this because I think that Baxter’s stone-age humans are psychologically much like us (unlike the classical characters through whom forces and modes of being act in the ancient tragedies), it is just that they are crushed beneath the structural forces that surround them.

    One could actually read Stone Spring using Julian Jayne’s The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind as I think that the social forces act through the book’s characters in much the same way as the gods acted through the Homeric characters.

  2. danhartland says:

    Bicameralism must be a meme in circulation – Prof Roberts recently suggested McDonald was doing just the same in The Dervish House!

    In part it’s that I distrust ‘the author didn’t show me, so I filled in the gap myself’ as a rationale for the theory; partly it’s simply that I think the characters are pretty sufficiently and clearly set up in the ways you describe: that is, it’s not that I disagree with you (of course they, like us, are buffeted by the social structures that surround them) … just that I think it’s possible to make too much of it. I guess I’m not as sure as you that the theory explains the whole novel?

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