Book Review: “Coalescent”, by Stephen Baxter

Cover of "Coalescent: Bk.1: Homo Superior...

Cover via Amazon

This is not just one book, but loosely connected, two and a bit – a historical novel, a biological thriller and a science fiction short story – under one cover.

The historical novel is about a girl growing up in Britain in the 5th century A.D., while the Roman rule disintegrates. Now, I am not a fan of historical novels – when I’ve tried to read them a couple of times before, I’ve been disappointed by how modern the characters’ thinking was. And if I want to know about history, I’d rather read a popular history book. However, this novel did not contradict anything I’ve read about the Roman period and, in fact, added a lot of details to the picture I’ve had before. Moreover, the narrative seemed as real as any “true story based” fiction.

This “reality” or “believability” is part of Stephen Baker’s trademark – anybody who has ever lived in Edinburgh and wanted to brush up on their geology should try reading another of his Sci-Fi books, Moonseed, and you will never look at Arthur’s Seat with the same eyes.

But I digress, back to Coalescent.

The biological thriller, set in a near future, is a Dan Brown-escue (in a good way) story about a man looking for his long-lost sister and discovering a Puissant Monastic Order led conspiracy. The most interesting detail is that at the heart of the conspiracy is biology with some emergent theory thrown in. The motto of the Order is:

      • Sisters matter more than daughters.
      • Ignorance is strength.
      • Listen to your sisters.   

        Worker bees

        Worker bees – E.O.Wilson thinks that humans have a similar capacity to live and work together as an meta-organism  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first slogan struck me as being very much in line with an idea I’ve encountered in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene“, that while sisters are the closest relatives, because they share the most genetic material, their daughters’ genotype is “diluted” by the sexual partner’s genes. Therefore, for a selfish gene inside an organism it would be more logical to encourage your mother to have more children, than for the organism to reproduce. However, Stephen Baxter has replied to my letter that:

“…I’d read Dawkins, but the main influence on the biology in the book was the work of E O Wilson and his collaborators on eusociality in the insects.”

To my shame I did not know who E. O. Wilson was, so I did a little reading and discovered that he is an entomologist, specializing in the study of social insects. In his popular works (one of them recently reviewed on Bitesize Bio) he argues that humans have “eu-” (meaning true) social capabilities, including specialization. Baxter did a brilliant job extrapolating this into fiction with very entertaining and chilling results.

Retrato de Felipe IV, by Diego Velázquez

Portrait of Habsburg Prince Felipe IV by Velázquez. Note a long fleshy nose and a protruding lower lip characteristic to the family.

The science fiction story describes a very distant future, where a eusocial human society has reached a logical endgame. Unfortunately my professional disbelief, suspended for the past and present stories, crushed down on me in the end. It’s been pointed out that the problem with O. E. Wilson’s ideas is that he mechanically transfers traits found in insects to a completely different order – mammals. And even remembering about eusocial naked mole rats, it’s hard for me to believe that any amount of selective pressure in a microevolution timeframe on the un-engineered H.sapient genome can result in a two-week pregnancy or macroevolution changes – spermatheca or truly specialized ‘drones’.

Moreover, the Order practices insemination by close relatives to keep the genetic make up undiluted. In practice this would lead to inbreeding. According to the current estimate each person has about 6 new genetic mutations, which during reproduction are usually compensated by the normal copy of the gene from the mate. Selecting a close relative as a mate greatly increases chance of the second defective copy of the same gene and a  hereditary disease  as a result. Dog breeds are a good example of selective inbreeding result: hereditary cancer of the kidneys occurs often in German shepherds and labradors quite often have pelvis dislocation.  The story of House of Habsburgs  is a good example of human inbreeding, which  resulted  the family decline and extinction.

But despite all this, I think that from a biologist’s point of view Coalescent is one of the most original science fiction books I’ve ever read and I would not hesitate in recommending it. A pity that I cannot say the same about the sequels, Transcendent and Resplendent – they are getting progressively worse.

Have you read Coalescent? What did you think?

This is 2.0, 1.0 was published @BiteSizeBio

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Coalescent”, by Stephen Baxter

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