(1998) Stephen Baxter, Voyager, £16.99, hrdbk, 534pp, ISBN 0-007-225426-3
The cover of Baxter’s latest offering once again caries the SFX magazine quote of him being ‘The best SF author in Britain’. By now Stephen Baxter would be well within his rights for being more than a little cheesed off with this overhype especially as many would credit, say, Arthur Clarke with that title, or even maybe Ian Banks if one’s criteria were more literary? Though Baxter is arguably one of Britain’s better contemporary writers, even he must be getting a little tired of having to live up to SFX’s claim: and with Moonseed he has a lot of living up to do...
Moonseed is Baxter’s ‘disaster’ novel. It takes as its premise the idea that some rock-dissolving infectious-type agent is carried from the Moon in an Apollo mission rock sample to Earth. On Earth, after a couple of decades, it is ‘accidentally’ released from the Edinburgh laboratory studying the sample.
First the agent eats down the old volcanic plug on which Edinburgh is built with the appropriate dramatic results. Then what starts as a local disaster becomes global as the agent, the ‘Moonseed’, is carried around the World by both humans and winds following the Edinburgh explosion.
A mission to the Moon is contemplated while mankind begins to realise that the end is nigh, as signalled by Venus exploding. (Yes this book has its fair share of bangs.)
Baxter has undertaken good research for this book. Geology, astronomical and NASA details all testify to this. While the plot itself rattles along at a fair old pace. However while the first two thirds of Moonseed are fairly gripping it all begins to get a bit silly as the protagonist (a geologist) gets to head-up a mission back to the Moon to test out a couple of ideas which he would not reveal to anyone back on Earth... That he is accompanied by his former lover strains the plot even further and is all a little silly. All this may seem a bit harsh. After all with SF the easiest target of a difficulty to suspend disbelief should perhaps be the SF concept itself, but we SF buffs are used to taking onboard strange ideas. With Moonseed while I am sure for many readers it will be possible to accept the rock-eating agent concept without due difficulty, I have to say that for me this was undermined by the lack of conviction in which many of the characters were portrayed. (For instance I know of a good few geologists but none would deliberately sit on top of a volcanic dome due to explode!) Indeed Baxter seems to have fallen into that ghastly trap (so favoured by one or two American writers) of making up for a lack of a solid protagonist with convincing character with sheer numbers, forgetting that quantity is not quality. So as to keep track of his many players, Baxter (in common with the afore mentioned American writers) has a list of ‘Dramatis Personae’ at the book’s beginning.
Nonetheless, this book is a fair read and Baxter fans will no doubt enjoy it, as will those into disaster movies. It will probably sell reasonably well and deserve to do so. However what this book is certainly not is an example of World-class science fiction from ‘the best SF author in Britain’. What it might well be is a disaster novel writ large from one of Britain’s rising SF stars.
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