Raft – Stephen Baxter (XeeLee #01) – (1991)
Part of Baxter’s Xeelee future history, ‘Raft’ postulates a universe where the basic force of gravity is much stronger than in ours, and therefore one where the formation of galaxies and systems will work very differently.
Generations before the events in the novel, a ship passed through the Xeelee artefact ‘Bolder’s Ring’ to emerge in this universe, only to find itself imploding under its own weight. Here, life can exist in nebulae where suns are small, and are created and die frequently. Mobile trees fly through the air rich nebula and the descendants of ‘the Raft’ live a precarious existence as they realise that their nebula is dying, and the air running out.
Rees, a young miner who works in a 5G environment on the surface of a collapsed star, stows away on one of the trees that trades between the mining community and the Raft itself. He finds himself an apprenticeship with the ‘scientists’ and the novel sees him trying to find a way to save himself and the people of the nebula.
As well as being one of Baxter’s best novels, this is also a tribute to other writers of Future histories, such as Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven, although far nearer to Niven in terms of hard SF and playing around with scientific extravagances.
Heinlein’s nod lies in the rite of passage theme which sees a young man taken out of his familiar environment to face adversity and hostility only to eventually prove his worth to everyone.
The beauty lies, as it often does with me, in Bob Shaw’s ‘wee thinky bits’, the fact for instance that here human bodies generate gravitational fields strong enough to attract other human bodies, and the entire concept of a nebula where planets can never form as they would merely implode, and small suns fall into the core of the nebula while new ones are generated regularly.