Raft by Stephen Baxter – review

Raft I don’t read an awful lot of hard science fiction, but do occasionally get the urge. I love Iain M Banks’ work, but I wouldn’t classify that as especially hard or sciencey. It’s just awesome, and usually as hard as I like it (oo-er, Mrs). But now and then I like to read something by someone with real science chops, like Alistair Reynolds or Greg Egan. I’d never read anything by my namesake, Stephen Baxter (no relation), so when a friend was selling some books on the cheap recently, I grabbed his copy of Raft.

It was Baxter’s debut novel and all the blurbing is quite effusive. And fairly reasonably so. The story basically revolves around a few thousand humans, surviving after being cut off from the rest of humanity some five hundred years before. Back then a spaceship accidentally crossed into a paralell universe and the crew managed to survive in a gaseous nebula. They turned the ship into a kind of massive raft, surviving as best they could by mining the tiny short lived stars around them for iron and expanding their raft as their numbers increased.

These people live in utterly different conditions to anything we’d know, where even their own body mass exerts a gravitational pull that others around them can feel. There are strange lifeforms in this nebula, like flying trees that the humans have pressed into service, and so on. The trouble is, the nebula they’re in is dying and something needs to be done.

The story is incredibly well realised. The nebula these humans inhabit is tiny on a comparative scale to anything we’d consider a nebula. Baxter manages to make this environment quite believable and his toying with the gravitational struggles of daily life is fascinating. The trials of life against this totally weird universe are convincing and Baxter doesn’t shy away from the realities of life in such a harsh place. He does a great job of exploring the nature of humanity in adversity as well as crafting a truly mind bending universe for the story to take place in.

The writing bothered me sometimes, like often using “Now” at the start of sentences. As in, “Now the tree tipped towards the core” or something. Well, yes, of course it’s now. We’re reading it now. The tree tipped towards the core. That phrasing in particular cropped up a lot and started to really bug me, but otherwise Raft is an excellent adventure really well told. If you fancy some very hard SF wrapped around an adventurous yarn, you could do with giving this one a go.

Now I’m moving back into a big, fat fantasy read. I used to read BFFs all the time, but these days I tend to wade through one every year or two. Last time it was Brent Weeks’ The Night Angel Trilogy, which I enjoyed immensely. This time I’ve finally got around to George R R Martin’s Song Of Ice & Fire and last night started on the first book in the series, A Game Of Thrones. This is partly because people have been telling me for years that I should read these books, but also because I met Martin at the recent Worldcon and he’s a stellar guy. And HBO are making a TV series of the books, which I’ll be keen to watch, but wanted to read the books first. I’d been putting this series off because it was unfinished, and I like to know there’s an end in place when I start on these big reading endeavours. But Martin seemed in good health and good spirits when I met him, so I’m hoping he’ll be inclined to finish this thing off at some point.

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2 thoughts on “Raft by Stephen Baxter – review

  1. Hi Alan,

    Interesting review. The description of the nebula and the floating trees remind me of Larry Niven’s ‘The Integral Trees’. In Niven’s story the humans are survivors of a lost colony who actually live on these kilometre long trees. I wonder if there are other similarities.

    Of course, Stephen Baxter wouldn’t be the first writer to ‘borrow’ heavily from previous authors. Greg Bedford, who was at Aussiecon 4, rewrote (and expanded on greatly) a lot of the stories of British astronomer royal and writer, Fred Hoyle.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Phill.

  2. I haven’t read that one of Niven’s but you’re right about borrowing. At Worldcon Robert Silverberg was talking about writers rewriting or expanding on the stories of people that came before them.

    Also, with hard SF there’s a few things that several different people might postulate and write about without seeing each other’s work. A good idea can occur to lots of clever brains independently!

    Thanks for sharing – I should read more of Niven’s stuff.

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