If you lend an ear to certain voices echoing around the wood-panelled dining club that is modern SF, you'll no doubt be aware that some people consider SF to be suffering from a lack of willingness to engage with the future. In fact, some familiar genre names have taken to writing about the present (Greg Bear, William Gibson, and Jon Courtenay Grimwood) or the past (Neal Stephenson and James Morrow) rather than carrying on the old genre tradition of dreaming up plausible futures. Charlie Stross even accused alternate history writers of engaging in "a mad collective ostrich-head burying exercise rather than engaging with the world as it is." What then are we to make of Stephen Baxter? Arguably the godfather of the contemporary hard SF scene, Baxter has spent his writing career relentlessly pursuing scientific and philosophical ideas of dizzying scope and complexity before wrestling them to the ground and presenting them to us for our amusement and delectation. But then Baxter turned his eyes to the past while writing 2003's Coalescent (volume one of the Destiny's Children series). This flirtation with Roman Britain (and King Arthur) seemingly inspired Baxter to explore the world of historical fiction again, thus his current Time's Tapestry series.
Following on from Emperor in 2006 and Conqueror earlier this year, Navigator continues to chart a history of the world chock-full of more or less successful attempts at meddling by shadowy figures from the future known as the Weaver and the Watcher. Where Emperor dealt with Roman Britain and Conqueror dealt with the Dark Ages, Navigator deals with the medieval period, focussing very much on the battle between Christianity and Islam played out in Spain during the Reconquista of what was then Al-Andalus.
The book is composed of three historical episodes spanning the years following the invasion of England by the Normans to the beginning of Columbus's voyage of discovery.
The first vignette is arguably the best constructed. It revolves around two relationships that simply should not exist according to the rules of both Christian and Moorish society. One is the romance between thuggish youth and wannabe holy warrior Robert and beautiful liberated and educated Muslim Moraima. Elegantly handled and with some wonderfully warm characterisation, this relationship is intriguingly mirrored by that between the priestly scholar Sihtric and the Vizier of Cordoba. As much as Robert and Moraima's relationship speaks for the fact that love can overcome cultural and religious differences, Sihtric and the Vizier's speaks of how a bad relationship can make those differences so much worse. Sihtric has in his possession some prophetic drawings of engines of war, and despite being Christian he is forced to have the weapons built by the Moors because of their superior resources and education. Similarly, the Vizier is dependent upon the priest as he has become an alcoholic and only the priest has the contacts that allow wine to be shipped into a Muslim city. Bound together by a mutual need and hatred the two men orbit each other until Robert and Moraima's love pushes the two old men over the edge.
The second vignette is set a number of years later and again features two sets of relationships. Both pragmatic and imposing matriarchs and both descended from Moraima and Robert, Subh and Joan are both divorced from their own lands and cultures. The Muslim Subh is forced to flee Seville by the encroachment of Christian armies (and the shameful revelation of Christian ancestry) while Joan is an exile from the short-lived Christian Holy Land kingdom known as Outremer. Both women possess parts of a set of prophecies which, if brought together, would allow the construction of great engines of war. Unfortunately, as women divorced from their homes, both women have become increasingly fanatical and utterly devoted to using their prophecy to force the other's culture out of their homeland. As in the first vignette, things do not end well, as the women are incapable of solving their religious differences and end up brawling. Slightly more disconnected and less tight than the first vignette, this section nonetheless does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting two civilisations as one ascends to power and another recedes.
The third vignette deals with another prophecy that speaks of the need to turn a man named the Dove towards the west rather than the east. As you might guess, this "dove" is Christopher Columbus, and he must fight to clear a path to fame against a background of a now entirely reconquered Spain that has turned from fighting the heathen without to the heretic within, under the guise of the Spanish Inquisition. The star of this vignette, Columbus himself, is portrayed as a buffoonish middle class chancer who is entirely dependent upon his skill with the ladies as a means of opening doors. Ironically, given the fact that Columbus is forever offstage, this piece of characterisation is the best thing about this vignette. Always talked about but never talked to, Columbus perfectly encapsulates the rising middle classes who force their way into the corridors of power using whatever skills they have.
Navigator is ultimately a book about the very same issue that prompts some people to consider historical fiction an attempt to bury one's head in the sand: it is about the conflict between the urge to look inwards and retreat into an inner world and the urge to look outwards and engage with the world as it really is. It's a book about the difference between philosophical and psychological introversion and scientific extroversion. Indeed, while this book can, at first glance, appear to be an example of a distinguished SF author burying his head in the sand and choosing to relive the glories of the past, Baxter shows real subtlety in his treatment of the subject matter, making it clear that this is not a simple rehash of the past but rather an attempt to grapple with ideas and issues that continue to affect our lives. For example, it would be easy to follow the example of Morrow's The Last Witchfinder and reduce the story to a series of simple morality plays between Christianity and Natural Philosophy. But in truth, many of Baxter's characters are not only deeply religious but also driven to engage with the world because of their faith, not in spite of it. The same willingness to embrace complexity also steers Baxter clear of an easy postcolonial and topical Islam = good, Christianity = bad narrative. Indeed, though Baxter gives a nod to modern politics by featuring a young wannabe holy warrior being mocked by educated and cosmopolitan Muslims, he is ultimately just as happy painting individual Muslims as greedy and sanctimonious as he is Christians.
Instead of falling into one of the easy thematic options summoned up by the Crusades and the clash of Muslim and Christian civilisations, Baxter suggests that a willingness and an ability to engage with the world on its own terms is a matter more of economics than of culture or nationality. Indeed, the first episode positions the Moors as rich and liberal when compared to the filthy, ignorant Europeans, but as Christian civilisation becomes richer and more complex, we begin to see the appearance of more and more Christian scholars, including originator of the scientific method Francis Bacon, who makes a brief cameo. The further the book advances through history, the more Moorish civilisation seems to wane while Christianity waxes until, referencing the flight of the ethnic Britons to France in Conqueror, Baxter speaks of the remaining Spanish Muslims fleeing to North Africa. The downward and the upward trajectories of the two civilisations are perfectly captured in the second vignette's confrontation between two matriarchs. Both educated and well-travelled, the women are equally blinded by their religious obsessions. Whereas previous generations of Moor might have negotiated and future generations of European might have sought an agreeable compromise, both women refuse to budge, meaning that they are both reduced to sprawling on the floor like drunken imbeciles, both trying to beat the other to death despite their many similarities and common interests. This battle between philosophical introversion and scientific extroversion is also found in the life of Christopher Columbus.
A nouveau riche chancer who has worked his way up through the merchant navy to some degree of learning, and with a lucky marriage affording him some social position, Columbus stands in stark contrast with the European characters of the first vignette. Educated despite not being a priest and well-travelled despite not being a warrior, Columbus is a product of an emerging middle class that simply did not exist in previous Christian centuries. He is also a man with two plans to make himself rich. Firstly, based upon his learning and the information gleaned from his travels, Columbus has a plan to seek a passage to the Indies by travelling west. Secondly, based upon his devout faith, Columbus also has a plan to travel east and enlist the help of the Mongols in wiping out Islam once and for all. As with the characters in the previous vignettes, Columbus is a man trapped between the diktats of his faith, the desire to immerse himself in the values of his religion, and the desire to engage with the world by going out and exploring and learning new things. Needless to say, more than one faction is aware of the prophecy governing Columbus's life and while some want the Dove to turn west and become a great explorer, others want him to turn east and become a holy warrior.
With each new book in this series, Baxter has become better and better at engaging with historical ideas and theories. While Emperor spent too much time dealing with Roman technology and Conqueror struggled to rise above historical and archaeological data, Navigator is a mature work from a writer completely at ease with not only historical fact but historical analysis too. Navigator's characterisation is also much improved over previous instalments, thanks to Baxter's decision to devote more time to fewer historical periods and to ground each episode in a strong dramatic conflict. Indeed, Baxter's skill at balancing the needs of the plot with the need to address certain ideas also improves, meaning that the book comes across as a lot less dry than previous volumes, where the hard SF tendency to suborn character to idea resulted in characters and plots that felt like little more than things to hang ideas on. The only time one feels Baxter's attention wandering is during the third vignette, when the need to take in the Inquisition and Columbus feels almost like a rushed afterthought to the more meaty sections dealing directly with Al-Andalus.
As we can see, Navigator is a book that attempts to argue that the values of the Enlightenment transcend culture, race, and profession, but that at the same time, the victory of the Enlightenment and the birth of the modern era were always a matter of luck rather than inevitable triumph. These are broad SF themes, but this book sees them explored in a historical context and, as a result, I think you'd be hard pushed to argue that this book does not engage with the world and worry about the future. Sometimes there's more to science fiction than literally writing about the future.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the U.K., where he writes and teaches.