Back in July 2006, I reviewed Emperor for this very website. The first book in Stephen Baxter's Time's Tapestry series, Emperor began with a prophecy and followed various attempts made during the Roman occupation of Britain to make certain that the events of the prophecy came to pass. To say that I did not like the book would be a fair assessment, as I felt that Baxter spent too much time focusing on Roman engineering to really come to grips with what is interesting about the period. However, though far from perfect, Conqueror is a clear improvement, as it adopts a different and less Discovery Channel-friendly approach to history. While I still do not think that Baxter engages with historical fact with the same flair as he does with scientific fact, it is interesting to note how a change in approach to history can result in a formula working more effectively.
Emperor spanned the four hundred years of Roman rule by focusing on a series of historical vignettes bound together by a prophecy and populated with characters who represent, in stereotypical terms, the social changes that occur during the period (a formula similar to that used in Baxter's Evolution (2003), albeit in that instance on a much longer timescale). Conqueror uses the same formula to cover the Dark Ages. The book spans over four hundred years, from the great Saxon invasions of 607 to the Norman invasion in 1066, by way of the Viking sack of Lindisfarne in 793 and Alfred the Great's reconquista of England from the Danes starting in 872. Much like the prophecy in Emperor, the Menelogium of Isolde has been planted in history by a shadowy denizen of the future known only as the Weaver (to go by the projected title, the subject of the series' final book). However, unlike Emperor, Conqueror suggests either that the Weaver's predictive powers are not entirely accurate, that (s)he may be seeking to alter history rather than simply predict it, or that (s)he is failing to sculpt human events into the desired shape, as suggested by this book's prophecy ending with talk of a great empire of the North—an empire which, because of the conquest of Britain by the Normans, never existed in our history.
As a doyen of Hard SF, Baxter's writing is focused more on the explication of his ideas than on characters and plot, so to expect great depth of characterisation or insightful human drama would be a trifle unfair, as Baxter himself pointed out in Emperor when he had a character defend the works of Lucian of Samosata on much the same grounds. However, compared to Emperor, Conqueror clearly sees Baxter putting a little more thought into his characters. Indeed, whereas Baxter's three or four previous books invariably featured a scheming fat man with grease dripping down his chin, Conqueror has such memorable turns as a gay bishop, an English warrior woman, and a scientifically enlightened Moorish slave. While this redistribution of energies is most welcome and makes for a far more interesting read, it is not the main reason why Conqueror is a better book than Emperor. The secret ingredient is the change in Baxter's approach to history.
Emperor grounded its account of Roman Britain in discussions of Roman technology. This approach to history led to extensive discussions of such fascinating topics as how the Romans wiped their backsides, and resulted in a huge chunk of the book revolving around endless project management meetings and attempts at procuring funding for Hadrian's Wall. Indeed, after reading Emperor, I had visions of Conqueror featuring endless diatribes on Viking sail geometry and ship design, but Baxter decided to anchor this book not in Dark Age technology but rather in cultural and ethnic history. Reference to William the Conqueror aside, the book's title is no accident, because it is ultimately a story about waves of conquest and the ensuing changes to the political and ethnic geography of Britain. These are the book's big ideas.
The book starts with a beautifully eerie vision of an almost post-apocalyptic Britain where the waves of Angle and Saxon invasions have forced the ethnic Britons to flee their lands for the safety of the Christianised continent.
A bonfire burned on the road, and the hymn-singers had to divert to pass it by. An abandoned house was being looted by a pair of Saxons, a rougher sort than the mercenary warriors who accompanied the refugees. The looters evidently weren't having much luck. They hurled old clothes and broken furniture out of the house and onto the fire—and books, rolled-up scrolls of parchment and scraped leather and heaps of wooden leaves that curled and popped as they blackened. (p.23)
What actually happened to the ethnic Britons is still a matter of some archaeological speculation, but Baxter lumps for the rather intuitive solution that they went and lived in what would become Brittany in northern France. So, as the book starts, the Anglo-Saxons are very much the Others: they are prone to violence, largely illiterate, and worship ancient, sinister gods.
However, as the book goes on, these Others become the English, and the first wave of Danish raids sees a different ethnic group become the Other. Now it is the Saxons whose prejudices are exposed; one of them thinks of the Danish language as "much uglier than the calls of the sea birds, and, in the end, of much less interest" (154).
By the time the book reaches its final vignette, the Danish settlers and Anglo-Saxons are now the English in turn, and it is the Christian bullyboy Normans who become the Other. Accordingly, Baxter's protagonists realign their prejudices to focus on the new threat. However, the economic and political dependency of Baxter's protagonists upon the upstart Norman lords (a nice reflection of King Harold's own troubled relationship with William) make direct criticism difficult, leading one of them to vent his true feelings not at the Normans themselves but at the things they do differently, most notably their wine: "Ah, spiced the way William himself is supposed to prefer it. Filthy muck, isn't it? Give me good English ale any time" (262).
Undeniably the book's big idea, this account of the changing ethnic face of England beautifully conveys how diverse a nation it was even then, and how people who were once evil foreign invaders were considered completely British but a few generations later.
Baxter also does a good job getting across the extent to which, between the Roman and Norman invasions, Britain was not so much aligned with continental Europe geopolitically as with Scandinavia. Initially this idea is portrayed through linguistic and religious differences: the Scandinavians and Germans are seen as savages while the Britons flee to the continent. But in the person of Albert the Great, Baxter finds a politician able to combine the erudite and progressive instincts born of the Roman tradition with the more individualist and martial tendencies of the Northmen. Indeed, at the end of the book, Baxter talks about the quasi-anarchistic politics of Iceland as the possible foundation of a future English republic that would serve as a counterweight to the continent's crusading Christian thugs and a rich base from which to launch the settlement of America.
However, while these two ideas form the book's intellectual spine, they are not what make this book the kind that gets reviewed in an SF magazine such as this one. With the talk of an empire of the North, Baxter flirts with counterfactual history. Indeed, this book raises the interesting question of where historical speculation ends and historical counterfactuals begin. Unfortunately, the talk of the Weaver and the counterfactuals are never really explored in much depth. In fact, this lack of depth is the book's main problem.
Though well written and certainly engaging, dealing with an interesting period of history in an interesting manner, Conqueror is a much lighter read than the bulk of Baxter's other works. Indeed, while Baxter has made his name dragging his audience through mind-bending takes on complex scientific theories, there is little about Conqueror that is honestly challenging. The result is the feeling this book is somehow Baxter lite. This might well be because, as with the Mammoth series, the Time's Tapestry series is an attempt to reach a wider audience, necessitating a lighter tone and a less challenging intellectual manifesto. If this is the case then the lack of real intellectual meat is understandable, but it is still unfortunate.
Conqueror is undeniably a better and more engaging book than Emperor, which bodes well for the rest of the series should Baxter manage to refrain from looking at history through an engineer's eyes. However, despite a clear desire to engage with the big ideas behind the history of England, I cannot help but feel that this series is still some way short of attaining the intellectual and conceptual heights of Baxter's SF works.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic. Currently teaching after conducting research in fields as diverse as biological warfare and the epistemology of metaphysics, he writes articles and reviews, which are collected on his blog, SF Diplomat, and chairs the world's first child-free political group, Kidding Aside—the British Childfree Association.