Stephen Baxter’s Bronze Summer is the follow up to Stone Spring. In that novel, set in the mesolithic period, the inhabitants of Doggerland (the pre-historic low-lying land that once connected the British Isles with continental Europe) prevent the real-life inundation of this rich land by the construction of a huge wall. This is achieved through the introduction of a – to our eyes – simple piece of technology from the east: the brick. Though the novel did occasionally mis-step, Baxter evoked the time in a way that is mostly unknowable to us. I think that he understands that, although the pressures of living at this time, would necessarily impose different cultural norms, the people living at this time were unquestionably homo sapiens and it would be a mistake to portray them as anything other than human.
Indeed, as others have noted, upon hearing the premise of Stone Spring, I did have an impression that it might be as much an allegorical story about the dangers for humans in the face of the power of the environment to erase all trace of their existence. If one wishes to take this view of Baxter’s novel, then the use of the brick as an ingenious technological solution certainly has its parallels today. I think that the novel has more to offer than this, though.
Bronze Summer is set thousands of years after the events of Stone Spring, in 1159 BC. In this novel, the wall constructed in haste to keep out the water that threatened to engulf the peoples of Doggerland has grown both in size and importance. While the cities of the east have grown in size and importance and empires have risen (and are, in some cases, in the process of falling) a complex, literate society has grown up around the wall and its maintenance. Throughout the previous novel, though there were a couple of events (such as a fluked crossing of the Atlantic) which led to the alteration of the world as we know it, Baxter could have been writing a straight historical novel – albeit a highly speculative one – until it was clear that humans were about to alter the map of Europe as we know it. By the time of the events of this novel, the colonisation of Iceland (Kirike’s Land), the contact and trade with the Americas and the land of the people of Doggerland (Northland), we are firmly into the realms of the alternate history.
In the east, the rise of the great cities and empires, though not necessarily mirroring all that happened in our real history, is nevertheless similar in feel. The societies tend to have similar hierarchies to those that really existed. The people of Northland differ from them. Great cities and empires are being built in the east -a civilisation as we would understand it; Northland is, on the face of it, backward and unproductive with its lack of great conglomerations of buildings and huge farms. This is how the people of the east view Northland. However, by necessity, Northland is a highly complex and sophisticated society. The necessity of maintaining the wall and the network of drainage to allow them to live as they have for generations means that all are literate and each is assigned work according to their abilities. In this world – as in reality – in the cities, literacy is confined to a relatively tiny caste of scribes.
Bronze Spring gets its narrative drive from a clash between these worlds. Iron is being introduced to the world. Though still too precious to be used all the time as weapon, it is clear that it will be a driving force in the development of human society. The fall of the empires in the east has led to a break-down in order. Kilushepa, a ruler in this world, finds herself deposed and enslaved. Rescued by Qirum, she sees her opportunity to regain control of her empire and the restoration of order. Meanwhile, Qirum (a Trojan) finds that he may have the opportunity to gain power for himself.
He initially believes that this can be working with the deposed queen, but she sees him as a potential irritant and, once he has served his purpose, disposes of him. He takes this betrayal badly and gathers an army of miscreants to make his own stamp upon the world. Having visited Northland, he intends to build New Troy in the rich (and as noted earlier, as he sees it, underdeveloped) land to be found there. The people of Northland cannot allow this as it would destroy their way of life; they are few in number compared to the people of the mighty empires in the east. Nor can Kilushepa allow Qirum to grow his power. It is from this that an alliance is forged between her and the peoples of Northland.
Baxter convincingly paints a picture of the lives of the people in this altered world but it is more than pointless world-building. The conflict that grows between Qirum’s army and the alliance of the Northlander’s and the resurgent Kilushepa, culminates in a drawn out, bloody and destructive war. Earlier in the novel, the word hero had (I’d like to think) been used ironically to describe the actions of men engaged in murder and rapine. When we see the battles, though, it becomes all the more clear how lacking in heroism and honour war really is. One of the characters towards the end of the novel does actually explicitly make this point. I think, though, that Baxter had clearly made it himself with the battle scenes. Lives are ended with no thought and in seconds; the battlefield is littered with bodies, piss shit and blood. This is not heroic, it is not romantic and there is no honour to be found here.
I feel that I should confess at this point to being quite a big fan of Stephen Baxter. The publication of his first novel coincided with me getting heavily into SF. The fact that he is so prolific does mean that I’ve yet to read everything that he has written (plus I don’t now and never have read exclusively with in the genre; inverted snobbery about literary fiction is as irritating to me as any perceived belittling of science fiction. I like to read). I do think, though, that Baxter has definitely come on since Raft and it is hard to fault his imagination and storytelling abilities. Although there is clearly research within this novel, at no point did I feel that it intruded upon the narrative or the characterisation.
You could get away with reading Bronze Summer as a standalone, but I think that you’d miss out on the joy of the great sweep of time that Baxter is creating if you did so. Read Stone Spring and then read this. It is testament to Baxter’s abilities that, though the scale of this is far reduced from the Xeelee sequence, he still manages to evoke the relative immensity of time and space against the lives of the humans that populate these novels (remember that in the mesolithic, being in your 30s would make one old and that by the time of this novel, things were still far from our expectations in terms of longevity).
An interesting world and a compelling narrative. I enjoyed this a great deal.