Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter
I have to start this review by admitting a terrible prejudice against what may loosely be called prehistoric or stone age fiction. When I was young, I kept coming across instances of it from Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack London to Edgar Rice Burrows to the more fantastical John Norman. Many authors dabbled in stories set among early humans. But, I suppose, the book that set the more modern snowball rolling down the ski-slope was Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear. Now everyone and their sabre-toothed tiger (courtesy of Roland Emmerich in 10,000 BC) muscle in on the act from time to time. Just give them a stone axe and something to grind it on and they’re away into the past.
I took the time to set out my objections to this genre in the review of Shadow Valley by Steven Barnes. Rather than repeat myself here, I’ll content myself by saying that, when we read a work of fiction set in our modern world, the author can use a form of shorthand to signal the different situations. Since we’re immersed in the current reality, we only need a few hints to be able to work out sometimes quite complicated social situations. But if the author is taking us forward or back in time, it’s necessary to start explaining how these different worlds work. When we go forward, it’s easier to extrapolate how humans might react. But going back to being a hunter-gatherer is more dispiriting. I can’t get very excited about tribes struggling to survive when their understanding of the world is so primitive. I know Ug the Caveman is a cliché but it symbolises the inherent limitations in the genre. Either Ug is little better than a hairy ape with no language skills to speak of and only rudimentary tools to work with, or he’s a more modern human we can identify with.
Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter (Volume I of The Northland Trilogy) has us at a time when there’s considerable mobility between the different groups of humans. Each has its own language and customs, but there’s a more universal trading language and emerging urbanisation in Jericho which has the natural resources to support a larger population. This is a time when the merchant class is becoming more adventuresome and sophisticated and it’s therefore easier to characterise them as more like “us” for the purposes of telling the story. What would it be like, the author is asking, if a relatively modern man were to come across a tribe subsisting on hunting and fishing that’s about to find its natural stamping grounds increasingly underwater. Yes, friends, it’s that old-bugbear global warming as the ice is melting in the polar regions with no Kyoto Protocol to slow it down. Nothing is new in the scientific world.
Even the tribes are not quite as primitive as we might have expected. Yes, they’re pre-Google, but actually evincing some mild signs of intelligence. This bending of reality gives Stephen Baxter the chance to tell an interesting story. There’s immediate cross-cultural conflict with the arrival of two “British” brothers in our Northland village. They act rather like our football supporters travelling abroad and their first act is to start kicking down the walls of the hut they’ve chosen to occupy while on holiday. Later, one of them is the cause of a significant diplomatic incident between the local tribe and people migrating up from the south as the sea begins its invasion of the land. Our trader has set off from Jericho with a man skilled in brick-making literally in tow. It’s a long walk ahead of them. Then we have a third group forming as two explorers sailing up the coast rescue a pregnant woman.
Needless to say, the right people end up in the right place at the right time. One of the Brits kills the other in a knife fight (they’re obviously early Millwall supporters). The survivor has knocked up one of the local girls so they go back to the forests of home. Then there’s a tsunami that wrecks most of the village and salts the surrounding countryside. Enter our brickmaker with a grand scheme. Now before you can say, “Heath Robinson was my forebear”, they’re building a dyke and draining the land behind it. Forget about the Dutch and their primitive dabbling. This is state-of-the-art building work that only someone who had seen the walls of Jericho could design. And to get enough labour, they have to invent currency as payment and you can just hear the first faltering steps of the WTO spreading the economic miracle of trade. Meanwhile back in the forests, they’ve invented slavery following on warfare. They turned from being mere football hooligans and they’re now warlords bent on conquest. Naturally, it all comes out reasonably well at the end of this first exciting episode. The good survive and the less good perish. Warlords bad, benign dictators good. It’s always been the way in these primitive times.
I’m making fun of this revolutionary work to keep the seas from inundating the land between what is now Scandinavia and Europe and Britain. Just think, no North Sea and English Channel. I suppose I should apologise but this book signals dangerous times. If these alternate stone age visionaries have their way, it really will be a united states of Europe without the rump of the Tory party able to do anything to stop it. So, well done Stephen Baxter. In Stone Spring, you’ve actually produced an enjoyable read. What does this mean for my prejudice against stone age novels? Actually my prejudice remains intact. It turns out this book is really a modern story in prehistoric trappings. The way they talk and act, their dreams and plans for the future are all contemporary in spirit. How else could they build hundreds of dykes to keep the sea at bay? This sure ain’t going to be no Jericho where the walls come tumbling down even if they are using sandstone to face the dykes. This has all got to stand the test of time through two more volumes to complete the trilogy.
For the next in the trilogy, see Bronze Summer.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.