MOONSEED

by Stephen Baxter 

HarperPrism 

0-06-105259-0 

534pp/$23.00/October 1998

Moonseed
British Cover by Chris Moore

  Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Stephen Baxter's Moonseed opens with a recounting of the Apollo 18 mission to Aristarchus (which never happened) and the explosion of Venus (which also never happened).  Neither event seems to have a major impact on the lives of people on earth.  The rocks collected at Aristarchus are sealed in decontamination units by NASA for decades and the planet formally known as Venus is simply an interesting star in the daytime sky.  This begins to change when Henry Meacher, a NASA geologist whose career is in decline following the cancellation of his pet project, is assigned to escort a piece of lunar bedrock collected at Aristarchus from Houston to Edinburgh.

Leaving his ex-wife, astronaut Geena Meacher, behind in Houston, Henry travels to Scotland in hopes of putting his Houston failures behind him.  On a whim, he appoints a young man with no formal geological training, Mike ------, as his lab manager and begins to oversee work on his lunar sample.  When Mike presents his sister a small vial of dust from the sample, she allows some to fall on Ard Tor, an extinct volcano in the heart of Edinburgh which leads to the dissemination of the Moonseed.  Although Baxter is never fully clear on what the Moonseed is, or how it works, he is clear on its destructive behavior and Edinburgh is soon facing catastrophes of epic proportions.  It also becomes clear that the rest of the world will face similar problems, eventually being destroyed like Venus, unless something is done, although nobody knows what that something should be.

Unfortunately, even as the destruction of the world begins, Baxter never really gives the feeling of panic or fear.  The evacuation of Scotland is shown as being orderly, and, although a few fights break out, relatively peaceful.  The rest of the world, including London, seems to treat Edinburgh's loss as an interesting news story, but not something to worry about.  Even Henry Meacher's doomsaying is low key as he is the only person to fully understand the ramifications of the Moonseed.

Oddly for a disaster novel, Moonseed manages to avoid the pessimism which was endemic to Titan.  Instead, the novel seems to have a strange mixture of Luddite and Technological philosophy.  Baxter seems to be saying that yes, many of our modern problems are caused by technology, but the proper way to solve them is to throw more technology after them.  This, perhaps, is why Moonseed works as well as it does.  Baxter does not paint an entirely rosy picture of technology and the future, but neither does he portray the future, even a future in which the world's destruction is at hand, as bleak, not technology as evil.  Nevertheless, in Moonseed, Baxter is intent on the destruction of the world, without the grandiose planet saving abilities so often seen in science fiction novels and films.  Responding to a review in Locus, Baxter comments that Gary [Wolfe] was exactly right that the Moonseed's sole purpose is to chew rock slow [sic] enough for the characters to react; in fact in my original outline I have the humans beat the Moonseed and save the Earth, much as Tommy Lee Jones beat that volcano and Bruce [Willis] beats the asteroid, but what kind of wimpish threat would that have been?"

Of course, space technology is one of Baxter strong suits, and he once again explains how NASA can perform amazing tasks with existing technology.  In his last novel, Titan, he sent humans on a one-way trip to Saturn using Shuttle and Apollo technology.  In Moonseed, the mission is only as far as the moon, but he adds Soyuz technology to the Shuttle and Apollo technology of the last novel, eventually sending a mission to the moon.  Like the mission in Titan, the mission in Moonseed completely fails to examine relationships prior to the launch, resulting in a mission of Henry, his ex-wife, and her current lover.

Meacher's relationship with Geena is not Baxter's only failure in creating realistic relationships.  When Meacher first arrives in Scotland, Mike introduces Meacher to Jane, his aforementioned sister, and throughout the novel, even as they are separated by the catastrophe, the two begin a long term relationship, which, unfortunately, highlights one of the weaknesses of the novel.  Baxter is dealing with many complex relationships in Moonseed, from Henry and Geena dealing with their divorce to Jane, Mike and Ted's familial relationship.  Unfortunately, none of these relationships ring particularly true.  The characters are not two-dimensional, but neither do they appear to really connect with anyone they come into contact with.

Moonseed is a novel of ideas, the primary one being the concept of the Moonseed, but also an examination of ways in which humans can return to the Moon and the need for improved evacuation plans (most of the plans used in Edinburgh date back to the last major crisis, World War II, and are hopelessly inadequate for use in the modern world).  While Baxter's ideas can sustain a novel of this length, there are long stretches in which little happens and other areas, such as the rise of a doomsday cult in Edinburgh, which could have been explored at greater length.

Baxter has paced Moonseed slightly faster than his previous novel, Titan, but he still has a tendency to bog down in details which may or may not be interesting and frequently are unimportant to the plot of the story.  His characters are likable and believable as individuals, even if their interpersonal relationships don't always seem to be particularly realistic or complex.


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