(1991/2018) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, x + 246pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22405-6
A society of humans live in a strange universe where gravity is one billion times stronger than we know it. Rees is a miner on a dead star where he weighs five times what we would consider his normal weight. (Remember, with gravity being so strong, stars are smaller, hence lighter, than we know them.) Rees' live is a miserable one and he and his mining community depend on supplies from the Raft. When he gets the chance to stowaway on a supply run from the Raft, he gets the chance to see another level of society he barely knew. There he is talent spotted and taken under the wing of a scientist.
But the still shining stars within the cluster of the Raft and its dead stars are dying. That means that life in this part of the universe will cease…
Now, I should say that the back cover blurb – though only covering the plot of the first 50 pages – is something of a spoiler as the first 50 pages is something of a whirlwind of sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) scene setting. So if you are unaware of Raft and can avoid the online spoilers and the back cover, your enjoyment of this novel will be greatly enhanced. Suffice to say, it is all logical.
Raft tells Rees' story over the years and so at places the story suddenly leaps ahead in time. This is somewhat of a rarity these days for a book so short (by today's standards) but it does mean that the story bowls along keeping the reader entranced.
This novel has pedigree hence worth, with this reprint, its 2018 entry into the Gollancz series of SF Masterworks. Raft is not just Stephen Baxter's debut novel. It first appeared as a 6,000 word story in 1989 in Interzone, Britain's leading SF short story magazine. I have not read that short but clearly it must have been so packed with ideas that it must have been bursting for Baxter just a couple of years later to turn it into this novel.
As with all the Gollancz SF Masterworks there is an introduction by another author. In truth, some of these introductions are better than others but the one for Raft is particularly informative. This introduction is by the hard SF and widescreen space opera author Alastair Reynolds (who is also published by Gollancz). Alastair also happens to be a friend of Stephen's and that does enable some insights that others might not have provided. In addition to recommending some other SF titles (by other authors) that play with gravity (including Mission of Gravity), Reynolds reveals that Raft truly is part of Baxter's Xeelee sequence. The Xeelee -- hyper advanced aliens who messed with Earth – have appeared in a number of Baxter's early novels which sadly I missed. (Back in the 1990s another SF² Concatenation reviewer covered Baxter's books.) I did though read an omnibus of Xeelee stories and recently Baxter's return to this giant story arc with the novels Xeelee Endurance (2015) and Xeelee Vengeance (2017).
But Alastair Reynolds assures us that while the Xeelee do not make an appearance themselves in Raft that it is part of the Xeelee sequence. Given Reynolds' friendship with Baxter, I can only assume that he is correct. If so it means that we may be in for a surprise in a forthcoming Xeelee novel. Indeed, there is one very brief point (not central to Raft's overall story) where 'gravitic chemistry' leads to life.
As said, Raft is Baxter's debut novel. That he built it up then honed it from a previously published short means that it has had a fair bit of attention given to its genesis. This shows and it is truly worth the moniker 'SF Masterwork'.
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