Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter
Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter (Roc, 2012) is the second in The Northland Trilogy and we’ve moved on from the primitive days of the first brick built dykes. Now more than a thousand years nearer our time in this alternate history saga, we’ve got a major civil engineering project using concrete to keep the sea at bay. Yes these clever primitives have cracked the code on concrete. Cement has been around for several million years but, in our timeline, it was the Romans who developed “proper” concrete, using it for all their major structures from around 300 BC onwards. These eager beavers have completely excluded the sea from what is currently the bed of the North Sea. The “wall” now effectively creates a continuous land mass from Wales through to Europe and beyond leaving the current British Government with serious immigration problems as anyone who wants can just walk in (even from Romania if they want to walk that far). For those who have boating experience, a short sail north brings them to Iceland (then known as Kirke’s Land) where there’s a pivotal volcano that decides to make its mark on the world. You have to sympathise with these volcanos. For centuries they sit on their holes into the mantle, each one claiming they are the real-deal supervolcano and they just can’t agree. So periodically, one gets the bit between its teeth and, to prove it’s the biggest and baddest supervolcano, it erupts chucking out local lava but, more seriously, ash which triggers a small ice age featuring nut-obsessed saber-toothed squirrels if you’re lucky, a major ice age featuring species extinction and mass death in the human community if you’re less lucky. Fortunately, for now, the ice is only a gleam in the eye of the epilogue.
My apologies, I’m wandering around here (like many of the characters in this book) and not getting to the point of the review (many of the characters never end up in an ideal position either). So here we have this supermassive concrete structure that runs from here to there. It has a dual function. Obviously it keeps out the sea but, more importantly, it’s also a home to the people. Gone are the days when these primitives lived in caves. Now they’ve got their own continuous high-rise apartment block with major communities at regular intervals along its length. For this to work as a society, what you have to imagine is an amazing belief in the availability of free food. Most of our civilisations have developed with an agricultural base. Once there’s a food surplus, people can urbanise. Not in this book! Here we have an urban community in a ribbon strip development that creates a significant amount of unoccupied land. Quite why no other people invade this free land is left unexplained. The Brits, the French and the Germanic tribes know to stay out of Northland. This allows a hunter-gatherer society to prosper (with fish and sea food as a supplement). Obviously this also depends on there being little or no population growth so that natural sources of food are not exhausted.
So when the ash cloud screws up the already unstable weather systems, the fragile economies in the rest of the region collapse and conflict over access to increasingly scarce resources is inevitable. We start off in Northland with what I expected to become a murder mystery but the lead character, Milaqa, encouraged by her uncle Teel, is no investigator. In fact, for most of the book, she’s rather a diffident individual who shows little enthusiasm and not a lot of intelligence. The one immediately responsible for the death actually admits it about one-third of the way through and we get on with other matters. We also have two characters starting off in Troy. Qirum is a Trojan wheeler-dealer who “buys” Kilushepa, the deposed queen of the Hatti — the alternate history version of the Hittites living in the region we call Anatolia, now part of Turkey. Coming from even further away is Caxa who’s from a culture modelled on the Toltecs. Initially, everyone converges on the Northlands, but after a grand bargain is struck, Qirum, Kilushepa, Milaqa and Teel set off for the long journey to Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites. We then have minor skirmishes, larger scale conflict, quite a lot of brutality and an outbreak of disease.
The problem with all this is that the narrative structure lacks a clear focus. We have incidents and events dotted around the landscape and along the timeline as people travel hither and thither, with set pieces at the key locations as in a kind of historical drama with military overtones. Although there’s a chance for some character development, the primary protagonists are really plot devices to say and do the things necessary to show the development of the environmental disasters as the years pass by. This is not to say the broad flow of history is uninteresting, but I confess it failed to stave off boredom. I gave up caring who anyone was and just read it to the end to see what happened. It’s a shame really because there’s much inventiveness on display and significant rigour in the development of the climatic shifts and cultural consequences. But for me Bronze Summer proved rather tedious. I say this despite the introduction of combat and war which, in other hands, often enlivens proceedings. In this case, it was brutality and cruelty by the numbers with little emotional significance. I can’t honestly say this is worth reading unless you want to bridge from Stone Spring which was much better to the hopefully equally good concluding volume.
For a review of the first in the trilogy, see Stone Spring.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.