Tuesday, 24 December 2013


Stephen Baxter Moonseed (1998)
I haven't touched any Baxter for a while, having somewhat overdosed a few years ago - overdosed because whilst he's a fine writer, his books can be fucking depressing at times; but still, I always liked the sound of Moonseed, and it was always the next one I would have read had I carried on, and so it was difficult to resist when I chanced upon a copy in Half-Price Books.

Moonseed is hard science-fiction in the Asimov sense, eschewing magic wand plot devices such as warp drive and artificial intelligence, instead more or less sticking to what is known and understood, aside from the moonseed itself, although admittedly I suspect some of Baxter's reliance on quantum theory may be stretching the point a bit. As a straight disaster novel, Moonseed gets off to a good start by blowing up Venus, leaving it hanging as a baleful cloud in the night sky while Earth struggles with the collapse of the food chain - an effect of radiation levels soaring after the destruction of the inner planet. Bad turns to worse as rocks brought back from lunar missions are found to contain moonseed, an unidentified viral substance which devours and processes terrestrial minerals towards mysterious ends. As an outbreak of moonseed transforms Scotland into a huge active volcano, humanity at last understands what became of Venus and what will soon happen to Earth.

It's a big, fat housebrick of a novel which goes some very peculiar and unexpected places in the last hundred or so pages, yet still keeps the science reasonably hard. As something which sort of remakes The Blob as a geology textbook, its strengths are numerous, not least forcing a genially preposterous conclusion to work as something approaching believable with a barrage of engrossing science.

Unfortunately these strengths contrast with the regrettably weaker material which takes up the central chunk of narrative, material which prompted at least one reviewer on the Goodreads website to ponder whether Moonseed might be an early Baxter novel dating from before he got the hang of writing people. There are points at which the characters read as though they've been written by a mathematical process, their dialogue a bit too close to what you might find on one of those prime time ITV detective thrillers usually starring someone who used to be in Eastenders; and there are far too many characters, and all defined by occupation like Fisher-Price people - the doctor, the butcher, the policeman. Keeping track of them all becomes a chore, particularly under the onslaught of Baxter's characteristically overwhelming pessimism - Venus blowing up, environmental collapse, everyone having cancer, the breakdown of society, dead babies, volcanoes everywhere, extinction, the release of a new ELO album and so on.

It's frustrating because Baxter has stated that he doesn't view his writing as pessimistic.

'So,' he said, 'you're what we'd call a survivalist? You think that when it all falls apart we should pack up and head for the hills?'

'No.' Now she did sound offended. 'Of course not. We're human beings. We got where we are by cooperating, by helping each other. It's just that the future is so dangerous.'


'We're going to have to be smart to survive, on any timescale you care to think about.'

This exchange roughly encapsulates what Baxter has tried to do in a good few of his novels, namely presenting the hope that we as a species may triumph over adversity through unflinching realism and scientific endeavour, the realism being a more useful alternative to pretending that problems faced by humanity are not so great as they may seem. So whilst it's commendable that he pulls no punches when dishing out the grim, he's sometimes less able to provide a decent reason to keep reading through the relentless tide of death, cancer, and extinction. He just about pulls it off here in so much as I enjoyed the last couple of hundred pages, but it was a bit lumpy in places. Still, in terms of big ideas done well, Moonseed is up there with his best despite its shortcomings.

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