‘LAST & FIRST
Retro Book Review of:
(Orion Publishing Group, November 2002,
‘These are our ancestors, and their history is our history’
– Jack London (‘Before Adam’, 1906)
Stephen Baxter emerged at an inauspicious time in the evolution of the genre. All the major writers had already written their major works, all the tropes had been established, explored, and chased down to the final gasps of their expression. Science Fiction had begun to eat itself in pastiche repetitions and reformulations of increasing dullness. Yet Stephen Baxter has something of Brian Aldiss about him, genre-literate, and well-capable of illuminating its embers with re-ignitions of stunning invention. Aldiss had emerged during the 1950’s – also an inauspicious time for British writers, with SF dominated by formulaic if often-entertaining storytellers. He casually tossed incandescent prose as potent as intellectual hand-grenades into the incestuous pool of complacent spaceship and robot romances. Until he was rescued by the New Wave eruption of like-minded innovators. Like Aldiss, Baxter knows and honours the genre. But rather than regurgitating it as many of his contemporaries do, he flicks and tweaks with restless invention. His ‘The Time Ships’ (1995) took and expanded HG Wells’ seminal novelette in ways that ‘The Father Of SF’ could never have suspected. It remains possibly his best-ever novel. ‘Evolution’ (2002) aims not for Wells, but at Olaf Stapledon, another mind-ripping English writer of stunning consciousness-expanding scope. Maybe this time, Baxter falls a tad short of his ambition. Maybe. Yet it’s nothing less than a Stapledonian tour through the immensities of time from way-back-when to unimaginably distant futures, a seismic novel that challenges his time and his contemporaries.
He writes ‘in hope of long perspectives’, illuminated by a quote from Charles Darwin. There’s a brief framing-scene set in 2031, in which primatologist Alyce Sigurdardottir explains how her childhood discovery of a fossil-tooth set her on her career path. Then there’s a narrative plunge back along the tooth’s DNA-history to its original host-mouth, a shrew-like rodent called Purga who lived sixty-five-million years ago. In fact, the time-frame worms tangentially even further back to the birth of the ‘Devil’s Tail’ extinction-event comet at the slow condensation of the proto-solar system planetesimals. Until the comet becomes the ‘fragile ice structure’ falling ‘back towards the light’. Purga’s world-scape is lit not only by this impending juggernaut – which also figures in Brian Aldiss’ iconoclastic ‘Dracula Unbound’ (1991), but by Baxter’s vivid flair for imagery. A diplodocus is ‘constructed like a biological suspension-bridge’, dinosaurs move like ‘walking skyscrapers’, and a raised dinosaur-foot hovers, before crashing down like a ‘falling moon’. Purga has whiskers that fan out before her ‘like a tactile radar sweep’, as she’s hunted by a vengeful fast-moving Troodon named ‘Wounding Tooth’. Yet Purga, with mate Third, and her cub Last, survive the cataclysm that kills off the dinosaurs, and live on into the cruel aftermath of the Yucatan strike, as they must for the DNA-link through to time-distant Alyce to happen. All of which takes us only 14% of the way into the novel.
Then, in an episodic sequence of linked narratives, the plot leapfrogs through time in odd lurches down ‘a shining unbroken molecular thread’. Each contained segment a kind of short story resembling instalments from BBC-TV’s CGI ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’. No dialogue – obviously. No real characterisation – in healthily direct contradiction to every current marketing logic and ‘Creative Writing’ tutorial directive, as individual self-conscious has yet to arise. Just days of savage predation. And dollops of straight science explaining the continental shifts in a choreography of slow collisions and separations. Sixty-three million years ago, there’s squirrel-like Pless (plesiadapid) in a world-forest. Thirty-one million years ago, there’s Noth, a notharctus proto-lemur primate in a revenge-battle with murderous Solo in the long summer of Arctic north America. Thirty-two million years before present in the Congo a Skrat-alike monkey-anthro called Roamer drifts on a raft of storm-fallen mango-trees across the ocean from Africa to Yucatan, in an essay illustrating species-diversification. And ten-million years BP (before present) Dig competes with surviving dinosaurs stranded in a cooling Antarctica in their long slow extinction. And Capo, a dominant proto-chimp five-million years ago in the shrinking north African forests takes another accidental evolutionary step, by leading his group on a forced migration into the tree-less grasslands.
It’s earthy at every stage, with shit, piss and jostling erections. And random deaths. But watch those Attenborough wildlife docs and, without an internal consciousness, life consists of little more than eatings, excretings and matings. For Baxter ‘this intense evolutionary drama’ is driven ‘by the endless shifts in Earth’s climate’ – with the animals and plants ‘as helpless as bits of flux on a great terrestrial forge’. It’s a well-reasoned and scrupulously-researched tale ignited by Baxter’s calculated insertions into the evolutionary past. Life-forms that left no fossil-record to betray their existence. Air-whales that graze the Cretaceous stratosphere. And Listener and her mate Stego, Jurassic ornitholeste-creatures who have language, use weapons, and wear belts of woven bark. They are part of a culture of Hunters of Pangaea that survive for a few thousand years, and leave no trace, yet despite Baxter’s detailed description, they conjure up a mental-image of ‘Predator’ from the movie franchise.
‘A STORY OF THE STONE AGE’
by HG Wells (‘The Idler’ May-August 1897)
Prehistory is a respectable long-established sub-genre of SF. In 1906 Jack London’s ‘Before Adam’ went where HG Wells had already ventured, using dream-regression through layers of genetic-memory as a narrative device to tell of Australopithecine Big-Tooth of the Cave People. More recently ‘The Clan Of The Cave Bear’ (1980) and its popular sequels, by Jean M Auel, speculates about Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal interactions. Stephen Baxter does something similar, and conveys it well, but he does it differently. Unlike with his ‘The Time Ships’, there is no single protagonist to provide human perspective. Instead, the unifying character is the selfish gene itself, which involves a menagerie of creatures in a rapid-tumble through time, rather than a lasting impression of the immensity of the evolutionary chain. The process of adaptive change also seems, as it must be, deterministic. As though evolution has no reverse gear. As though it operates empirically, with humanity at its apex. Generally, in popular imagination, dinosaurs are seen as a kind of failed biological experiment, yet they were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135-million years. Longer by far than what was to follow.
Although with exact genetic links to those who have gone before, the novel’s second section shifts into more recognisably homo sapiens terrain – bringing the trigger to consciousness with it. Where Arthur C Clarke interposes alien intervention as the key, in the form of the ‘2001’ black monolith, Baxter offers no such catalyst. In his 1897 short fantasy “A Story Of The Stone Age”, set 50,000 years ago, HG Wells portrays humans as ‘a sort of monkey gone wrong’, Ugh-Iomi, with mate Eudena, is exiled from their tribe and almost accidentally invents the first axe and becomes the first horse-rider in order to escape dangers. Baxter’s Walkers of the Kenyan Rift Valley – a mere 1.5-million years ago are hominids, but direct descendents of shrew-like Purga. They have words, but no grammar. They’re not hunters, they’re still the hunted, although they care for their old, forming an extended family which in turn provides support-structure for the young, to the benefit of the group. As with Baxter’s previous protagonists he animates their tale when a bush-fire separates nine-year-old Far from what Wells’ calls her tribes ‘squatting place’, and she wanders through various hazards before encountering a new tribe. In this unemancipated prehistory, females gain acceptance through becoming pregnant, so she mates with tool-maker Ax.
Vaulting ahead to their Pleistocene Neanderthal progeny, Pebble’s hunter-gatherer tribe use identifying body-paint that constitutes the simultaneous ‘birth of art’, the ‘birth of nations’ and the ‘birth of war’. In popular perception Neanderthals are seen as a failed human-blueprint, yet there’s evidence that they survived for a not-inconsiderable 100,000 years. Torn from their village by violent conflict Pebble encounters Harpoon, a near-human with a domesticated wolf. The mating between ‘robusts’ and ‘skinnies’ that ensues is the same species-jumping ‘Romeo & Juliet’ theme as conjured by episode four (“The Survivors”) of BBC-TV’s 2003 ‘Walking With Cavemen’. Here the meeting between Neanderthals and modern humans instantly results in murderous violence. Would that have happened? Europe was a large and sparsely populated place. Neanderthals were enthusiastic carnivore hunters while modern humans were more omnivorous. Yet they were competing for the same prey. Apes are territorial, yet when encountering rival groups there’s much display and threat before any actual combat occurs, and an act of submission usually ends fighting without actual killing. Yet these were not apes. It’s a human trait to fight to the death, for a cause, for family and nation, due to peer pressure or fear of losing face. Yet they were not quite human either. In Baxter’s tale there is trade and mutual attraction. On TV there is also sympathy extended across the gulf separating the two offshoots of the same evolutionary tree. In his notes for the novel Baxter writes ‘I hope my story is plausible’. And as evidence has emerged since the publication of the book that Neanderthal genes are present in humans today, something like what Baxter envisages must surely have happened.
‘ONE PREHISTORIC NIGHT…’
by Philip Barshovsky aka MM Kaplan
(‘Wonder Stories’, November 1934)
Along the way, taboos are rationalised. Excrement is kept outside the huts not for hygiene, but so as not to attract flies. Corpses are buried not as part of ritual, but to discourage scavengers. First among the individual innovators is Mother, a pattern-maker in the Sahara 60,000-years ago. Her migraine-visions transform into wall-art. Her intense bereavement for her dead son, Silent, leads to a revenge murder, and to the creation of a religious sensibility when she sets his skull on a stake. There’s rain-making sacrifice too, igniting a ‘plague of thought that would quickly burn through the entire population’. Through the personification of this original Mother of Africa, Baxter conjectures a process that must surely have had some equivalent in real prehistory, exploring its gradual stages. Soon, with humans spreading out of Africa, he catches them devising outriggers to reach the raft-continent of Australia, and gradually altering its unique ‘laboratory of marsupial adaptation’. Jo’on uses Dreamtime tales to navigate his journey to the coast, uses fire to flush out prey, and eerily notes the exaggerated cave-painting shapes of creatures his kind have already driven to extinction.
Another leap in time. 31,000 years ago into Ice Age western France, where tall blonde humans use slave-race ‘bone-head’ Neanderthals as pack-animals to haul their sleds. So far as I’m aware there’s no archaeological evidence for this. But prehistory is vast enough to lose any number of ‘Conan’ Neolithic cultures, their remains eroded to dust by glaciation, or Atlantis civilisations drowned by rising post-glaciation sea-levels, and lost to science forever. Stephen Baxter’s speculations don’t extend that far. They stay within the realm of the reasonably possible. Although there is a kind of thematic repetition, replayed here, as young Jahna and her brother Millo are once again split away from their group – this time by a freak blizzard, and forced to travelogue the strangeness of their world during their wanderings. They find unlikely sanctuary with a lone bone-head ‘Old Man’ in his shore-line cave. Does his hospitality result in gratitude, reconciliation with the ‘skinnies’? No, his generosity is rewarded by the children’s father only with a brutal death.
The closest he gets to Robert E Howard is Baxter’s flip back 9,600-years to Anatolia, in Turkey, when pregnancy forces sixteen-year-old Juna to flee her tribe with a travelling stranger called Cahl, to his town where agriculture, animal husbandry, and beer have begun to have their transformative effect. Not always in a beneficial way. Then she uses newcomer Keram to escape Cahl to the shambling city of Cata Huuk with its sprawling population, disease, squalor, and new power-hierarchy. Baxter’s theme is clarifying further, human presence which has already upset the balance of the natural world, caused extinctions and environmental shifts, is going into overdrive, ‘suddenly people no longer bred like primates. They bred like bacteria’. The roots of the contemporary malaise afflicting the twenty-first-century world lie deep, and are maybe an integral part of the species. As Baxter points out, ‘hunter-gatherer communities were innately egalitarian’. By contrast, the new cities wage ‘a kind of slow war on the Earth itself.’
Already there’s a sense of tragic endings. When he next advances through time, to Rome, it’s not to the peak of its power, but to its sad decline, with the light of civilisation ‘already fading’. In 482CE (common era) he ties off connections and makes the links with what has gone before even more explicit. Cultured Roman Honorius and his Gaul pupil-companion Athalaric cross the divided post-imperial empire to Petra in search of relics – the skull of a homo erectus he calls the ‘animal man’. Then, in Emperor Augustus’ abandoned Bone Museum they find fossils dating back to Purga’s time, mistaking them for evidence of the Griffin, yet fumbling towards some concept of the evolutionary sequence. Until Honorius is murdered in an Atlantic-facing cave as he uncovers the bones of Jahna’s murdered ‘Old Man’.
The pivotal sequence appears 78% into the novel. The long-anticipated switch from past, to future, with a 2031 conference in Darwin, north Australia, with the world facing threats not only from global warming, unsustainable population-growth, mass species-extinctions, and ‘4th Worlder’ terrorism, but from titanic eruptions emanating from New Guinea’s Rabaul volcanic faultlines too. With the ‘gen-riched elite’ forming virtually a new species and self-replicating robot-probes on Mars, programmed to learn and adapt, there’s the prospect of a viable ‘Blade Runner’ future for the world, even if comes at the price of Darwin’s ‘tangled bank’ complex eco-system. Present for the conference is Dr Joan Useb. And primatologist Alyce reappears – from the introductory framing-sequence, to pose the equation that ‘humans had become smart enough to damage their planet. Now, just given a little more time, they might have become smart enough to save it. Just a little time…’ But that window of chance is vanishing fast as the Rabaul eruptions send seismic shock-waves around the planet.
Chapter 17, ‘A Long Shadow’, adopts a ‘Rip Van Winkle’ strategy to navigate its way around this convulsive end of the world. An idea not even new when Philip Nowlan used it to transport ‘Buck Rogers’ in suspended-animation into the 25th-Century. Five members of the UN Protection Force are revived by chance from cold sleep in a ‘place and time unknown’. They emerge from a cryostore into the ‘vegetable silence’ of a forest that is already ancient, and inhabited by only a depleted species diversity. They are castaways in time, in post-human England. ‘As the natural systems of the planet broke down’, humans had discovered ‘that they were still, after all, just animals embedded in an ecosystem, and as it died back, so did they’. Could it happen so swiftly? within the space of a single millennium? Yes, according to the doomsday scenario Baxter sketches. Consider, there’s a long nuclear winter resulting from greater cataclysmic volcanic activity than that of 1815, or the ‘Little Ice Age’ of the 1400’s. But although it constitutes the largest destructive-event in 50,000-years, there’s sound scientific evidence for precedents. Within its turbulence there are resource-wars and multipolar atomic-exchanges during civilisation’s dying spasms.
Gaia shrugs, and the irritating human infestation, the ‘most dangerous killers who had ever walked the Earth’, is gone And with it, evolution’s brief experiment in self-aware consciousness. Science Fiction has dealt with the apocalypse many times. As long ago as HG Wells’ ‘Things To Come’ (1936) an endless European war drives civilisation back to a kind of medieval feudalism, only to be resurrected by the coolly scientific ‘Wings Over The World’ organisation based in Basra, Iraq. Later, fictional nuclear wars destroy civilisation over and over again, only for it to be painfully reconstructed, in John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ (1955) and Walter M Miller Jr’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (1960) through the imposition of austere new religious regimes. For George R Stewart’s ‘Earth Abides’ (1949) the exterminating agent is global pandemic, out of which the scattered survivors gather to rebuild what has been lost. Repeatedly in fiction, there is drastic near-terminal change, but battered humanity survives. Even across vast gulfs of time, in Olaf Stapledon’s mind-stretching ‘Last & First Men’ (1930), charting centuries through near-extinctions and a bizarre category of evolutionary mutations, even Earth itself is swallowed up by the Sun, yet consciousness flourishes two-billion years into the future where the Eighteenth Men have relocated to the planet Neptune. Jack Vance’s ‘The Dying Earth’ (1950) novel series and Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Dancers At The End Of Time’ (1971) sequence are set in the unbelievably distant future, yet are populated by recognisably human characters. Only Stephen Baxter dares wipe out consciousness completely. His four UN Adams and one Eve decline to reproduce. They split up and wander apart. One of them encounters an animalistic female he names ‘Weena’ (after HG Wells’ time-traveller’s Eloi companion). Her scavenger tribe are ‘neither quite natural, nor human, neither one thing nor the other’, as a result of the mutational effects of toxic pollution run-off during the world’s uncontrolled collapse and, as in the ‘Planet Of The Apes’, they have lost the power of speech. Meanwhile, beyond Earth, the Martian Replicators continue humanity’s unfulfilled dream of expansion across the solar system’s worlds using solar sails, fusion drives and antimatter engines, devouring Mars in the process. On Earth, there is only a genetic legacy, just as Dr Joan Useb was descended from the Namibian San peoples, in direct descent from the ‘mitochondrial Eve’, so the gene will survive into the future.
There are less stop-overs into future-time than there have been glances into the long past. But that’s neither evidence of a loss of ambition, or scale of imagination.
The African savannah. thirty-million years into the future. The story of tree-dwelling Remembrance, who is carried far away by a predatory owl-eagle, and must journey home through strange hazards, constitutes a regression to the tales of early-hominids Capo and Far. This is evolution’s missing gear – not shifting the process into reverse, more returning it to its default setting. Linking back into a single ongoing continuity in which the entire ten-thousand-year rise and crash of human civilisation has been but a brief aberration. This is the ‘Kingdom of the Rat’ where rodent-survivors of the crash have diversified into rat-cheetahs that hunt rabbit-gazelles and duck-billed goats. ‘The processes of variation and selection’ have sculpted ‘the descendents of the survivors to fill shattered ecological systems.’ The human gene has split into Remembrance’s hairy-tribe and the Chattering Folk, mutually competing against this bizarre new eco-system where elephantine-posthumans are herded by mouse-raptors, and there are blind burrowing mole-people. Her wanderings take her to the beach of a new shore of what had once been the Great Rift Valley – both ‘the cradle that had shaped mankind’ and the ‘final refuge of man’s last children’. Like Purga, she watches a descending light in the sky, which is the asteroid Eros hurtling in for a further extinction-event impact. Even as life is losing its capacity for renewal and innovation. DNA itself is growing old.
The final plunge through time reaches 500-milion years into the future, in what was once Montana, on the desert-continent of New Pangaea, at the end of time. In a great desiccation, the red planet Earth has warmed to resemble lost Mars, inhabited by termites, lizards, rat-mouths sunken in the ground, and even a transparent predator ‘the greatest and strangest of all mankind’s legacies’. Ultimate is a small monkey-like being, a genderless ‘she’ symbiotically attached to a Borametz tree. Those struggling to find comparisons for this future-phase, must turn to the ‘Tummy-belly’ men – attached by umbilicals to their nurturing Tummy-tree, as encountered by Gren & Poyly in Brian Aldiss’ audaciously-imagined plant-based biosphere of ‘Hothouse’ (1962). A previous protagonist in Baxter’s trans-time sprawl – Juna, is allowed to save her baby. Not Ultimate. Striving to avoid her predetermined destiny and the ordained death of her child, she has nowhere to go. There is no place left to escape to. She encounters a sphere, which has evolved from a star-swarm of Martian Replicators, with machine consciousness. Will the sphere receive the child in a final act of reconciliation? A neat full-circling idea? But no. After returning to Earth seeking the answer to its origins, it finds no clues on this bleak world, and heads off back into space, disappointed. And Ultimate returns to the tree, retreating into drugged vegetable dream. Embedded within Ultimate’s story is a projection still further into more distant futures, to the final end of the solar system, just as the history of the Devil’s Tail comet is embedded into Purga’s story, extending the narrative back to the birth of the solar system. Fifty-million years hence, as the Sun’s relentless heating intensifies, the final traces of life will flicker out. With the lifeless Earth swallowed up by the solar nebula, its spores will survive in meteorites seeding new as-yet unformed worlds.
If Stephen Baxter emerged at an inauspicious time in the evolution of the Science Fiction, with the genre nailed down tight as a marketing category with its own expectations and limitations, ‘Evolution’ – and much of his other work, stands out from the pack as challenging those conventions, and recapturing some of the adventurous imaginings and sense of limitless wonder SF was designed to convey.
In a final add-on sequence, there’s a brief full-circling back to Joan, daughter Lucy, and Alyce, who end up at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the immediate post-Rabaul Galapagos. A place of special significance to evolutionary theory.
Completed in May 2002, Baxter selects an appropriate closing quote from Wordsworth ‘no motion has she now, no force / she neither hears nor sees / rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course / with rocks, and stones, and trees…’ (from “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” – 1798, from ‘Lyrical Ballads’). Wordsworth dedicated the poem to ‘Lucy’, which was also the name given to the Australopithecus Afarensis skeleton found at the Leakey site in Ethiopia in 1974.
The immensity of time in layered stratas of text.