Stephen Baxter’s 1993 novel, Anti-Ice opens with a letter from Hedley Vicars, a young soldier fighting in the Crimean war, to his father. He describes the use of a terrible weapon which devastated Sebastapol and ended the war. Developed by scientific and engineering genius, Josiah Traveller, this weapon uses the titular anti-ice. Anti-Ice being a fantastical substance which, upon heating, liberates an immense amount of energy allowing the creation of a single shell which can devastate a city or allowing the development of technologies that can run an empire.
This prologue over, we are introduced to the main characters in the novel. Ned Vicars, younger brother of Hedley, who had grown up with stories of the Crimean and the terrible damage wrought by the use of anti-ice in war. Josiah Traveller, the man whose genius had changed the world, his man-servant Pocket, Holden, a journalist and Françoise, a patriotic Frenchwoman with whom Ned becomes infatuated.
The use of anti-ice has altered history from that which we know. For example, by 1870 (when the novel is set) Victoria has abdicated, the capital of Britain and her dominions has been moved to Manchester in recognition of the importance of science and industry in the supremacy of the United Kingdom. This kind of thing is window dressing, though. What is of more interest is where the politics of the day is subverted by Baxter’s novel. The Victorian era was a time where Britain was extending its influence across the world in the form of an overseas empire. While it would be wrong to suggest that it lacked influence in continental Europe, I think it would be fair to say that the focus was on its overseas Empire. Baxter hints at a change in this tendency – the construction of a giant land cruiser by Traveller on the continent seems to hint at a desire to wow the rest of Europe with the vigour and technical skill of the British Empire. Again, not that this is alien to our history; the exhibition at the Crystal Palace would be an expression of this (indeed, in the novel, a second Great Exhibition is held in Manchester in 1870), but constructing such a visual demonstration of industrial might on the soil of a European nation seems to be more of a challenge to their independence.
Reading this far, it may not have escaped your notice that the deviations from established history hint at the author commenting on our own. First there is a substance which, under the right conditions, can release an awesome power which can be used to power new technologies or to win a war. furthermore, witnesses to the power of anti-ice shells express their doubts about the use of it in warfare and finally, we have a competing power. There is, of course, the powerful French nation. This novel is set in 1870, however, at a time when Prussia – one of the largest and most powerful of the Germanic states – was flexing its muscles and seeking to extend its power and reach across continental Europe.
In Anti-Ice the unification of Germany never happens and Britain declares a hegemony over Europe. This opens the way for Baxter to end the novel with his protagonist, now older and somewhat wiser, to declare that he fears that a wounded and militarily and industrial ingenious Prussia will seek to challenge the British Empire, now that it is rumoured that it has its own anti-ice weaponry (in the novel, at first, we believe that the only stocks are from a supply in the South Pole, which Britain controls, though we learn that the ‘Little Moon’ described in the novel is composed almost entirely of the substance). An uneasy balance of power between the two states seems bound to ensue, much as did the cold war.
This is all driven by a plot involving saboteurs and Ned mooning over Françoise (one does have to question why, when they meet, he’d think she have any interest in him). Michael Moorcock, in the cover quote, describes it as being ‘a scientific romance to rival Verne!’ That does get to the heart of what, I think, Baxter was aiming at here. Vicars and his companions are launched into outer space on board the Phaeton a craft constructed by Traveller for conducting measurements from orbit. Despite this being entirely unplanned, Baxter does help his characters by granting that the craft is sturdy enough for them to survive in the vacuum of space and that it has sufficient provisions to allow some entertaining gentlemen in space episodes.
They eventually engineer a return to the Earth after mining fresh supplies of water (for drinking and reaction mass) from the moon and discovering that the Little Moon that appeared in the sky in the 1800s is, in fact, almost all anti-ice. This means that Britain – which had been inventing more and more ways of using up the dwindling supply of South Pole anti-ice – no longer has to fear time and a willingness for her enemies to wait her out.
Upon returning, they discover that the use of an anti-ice shell on the French City of Orléans is changing the balance of power in Europe irrevocably (though in their homelands favour).
I first read this around the time that it had come out. It appears to be out of print now and, although I recall enjoying it, I had feared that time and my own maturing would not have been particularly kind to the novel. However, my enjoyment of Bronze Summer had reminded me that I had obtained a second hand copy of this. It’s a quick read, so I thought I’d see how well founded my fears were. In the main these were that first of all, this is early Baxter. He’s far better at this now, but there are definite occasions in his earlier work where the info-dumping isn’t quite seamless and seems intrusive. Incidentally, I seem to recall reading something from Kim Stanley Robinson where he has a dig at criticism of the info-dump. I think he’s correct to caution against a mindless attitude that info-dumping is inherently bad, but there are certainly plenty of examples of it being done in an intrusive manner in SF. Anyway, the point is, I wondered how I’d find that aspect of it. Secondly, the whole terrible weapon and Mutally Assured Destruction motif is hardly subtle. That’s one of the things that has stuck in my mind over the past few years. Finally, though I must confess that this is entirely post-hoc, I was remembering this as a steampunk novel. In 1993, I was blissfully unaware that such a sub-genre existed. It certainly didn’t have the cultural cachet that it has now (although that is probably in decline now).
So, to cover these worries; yes, it is a little clunky sometimes. For example, while in flight, Traveller expresses some degree of sympathy with the philosophy of anarchism. This conversation (and some others) does seem a little forced. A way simply to get some of the ideas that the novel deals with across. However, in dealing with the spluttering Holden, Traveller does make some excellent points that lazy and stupid journalists or politicians would do well to remember when talking about what it is that anarchism seeks to achieve. Though imperfectly rendered, these sections do add some extra depth to the novel.
Secondly, the cold war metaphor is as obvious as I remember. But it was fun getting there and because of the final point, I’m prepared to let that pass. Steampunk seems (might just be my perception) crowded beyond an ability to support itself. I have little problem with paying homage to Victorian-era scientific romance, but I do tend to fear that there is a danger of writing uncritically of the era. Yes, the Victorian British were vigorous, but this isn’t an inherently good thing. Unless you think like Niall Ferguson, it should be clear that imperialism is not a good thing. This is obvious to the point of triteness, I accept, but that makes it no less true.
However, I think that, homage though it may be, Baxter convincingly writes in that style while tackling themes and history in a thoughtful manner. It’s definitely not ‘look at all these cool steam-driven toys!’ For starters, there’s very little coal power in the novel (as I say, post-hoc). I think this is just another way of saying that it as an alternate history manages to look forward, despite being set in the past, in a way that a lot of steampunk fails to do.
So it’s not perfect, but I do think that it’s a shame that it isn’t still in print. Not Baxter’s usual fare at all, but a nice change of pace from his more grandiose novels. It’s worth noting that Stephen Baxter wrote an excellent follow up to The Time Machine (The Time Ships) which takes the idea of a Victorian scientific romance with the benefit of our new knowledge to a new level. As Jonathan McCalmont pointed out to me, tonally similar to his Xeelee novels.