Despite turning his attention to a number of different forms of science fiction over the years (most notably books for young adults, including the Mammoth trilogy), British author Stephen Baxter remains best known for his decade-long domination of the sub-genre known as hard SF. However, with his new Time's Tapestry series, Baxter has chosen to move away from his traditional stomping ground in favour of the historical fiction he flirted with in Coalescent, the first book of his Destiny's Children sequence. Sadly, for all the boldness of Baxter's desire to take on a new genre, Emperor serves only to prove that while you can drag an engineer to a history class, you can't stop him from fingering his slide rule.
This story begins with a birth. During a howling thunderstorm, a dying mother's last words upon the birth of her son Nectovelin are in Latin, a language she could not possibly have known. They are a prophecy that speaks of a coming Roman invasion, and of a future of freedom and happiness. Spanning nearly 450 years, Emperor follows the descendents of Nectovelin as they struggle to ensure that the events in the prophecy come to pass while Emperors invade, build walls, convert to Christianity, and eventually fade from view as Britain enters the Dark Ages following Roman rule.
As might be expected, given Baxter's episodic structure and epic timeline, the characterisation on display is somewhat weak. Without the "screen time" to define themselves through their actions, Baxter's characters never stray far from culturally appropriate stereotypes such as the ruthless Roman matriarch, the bluff barbarian warrior, and the corrupt courtier. Indeed, Baxter's characterisation is reminiscent of a poorly written Catch-22 (1961), wherein different characters serve as personifications of different social attitudes. However, where Heller's characters sparkled with dark humour and malice, Baxter's dry-as-dust creations merely chart the social changes that occurred during the Roman occupation of Britain. There is no satire here, no wit and, most distressingly of all, no politics. Baxter's vision of history is that of an engineer, not of a historian or a social scientist.
So, despite much of the book being concerned with political manoeuvring and the clash of civilisations, there is no talk of values, belief-systems or world-views. Instead, we are given chapters that discuss how the Romans used to wipe their backsides and endless discussions about whether it is best to use stone or turf when building colossal defensive walls. This is the same vision of history that attempts to tell the story of World War II by discussing different models of tank and informs Discovery Channel favourites such as Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. It is not the result of poor research—an archaeologist informs me that Baxter's dates, names, and places are all as they should be—but simply a failure to realise that history is ultimately a story about people. For example, consider Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God (1934 and '35; famously turned into a mini-series by the BBC in 1976). Graves's books are also episodic and deal with a long timeline, but by concentrating on the characters and the political currents that work through them, Graves creates a Rome that feels real and vibrant and human. By contrast, Baxter's Roman Britain feels trapped in aspic, as if all the technology on display were already behind a glass case in some museum. This detached viewpoint will be familiar to anyone who has read any of Baxter's hard SF as, like all hard SF, it pushes characterisation and narrative to one side in order to explore technologies and scientific ideas. However, hard SF works as a sub-genre because the joy to be had from exploring Big Ideas easily compensates the reader for the weakened narrative and characterisation. When you try, as Baxter does, to replace Big Ideas with bits of sponge tied to a stick, you are left with a book that is dry, tedious, and an ordeal to get through.
A lifelong resident of London, U.K., Jonathan McCalmont holds postgraduate degrees in philosophy and war studies. Unable to find work as a Philosopher-King, he teaches, writes, and spends altogether too much time playing Football Manager 2006.