Stephen Baxter’s 1991 science-fiction novel, Raft, is the first in his expansive Xeelee Sequence, which spans nearly a dozen novels. In Raft, I see Baxter drawing inspiration from, specifically, two Robert Heinlein novels: Orphans of the Sky and Citizen of the Galaxy.
The premise of Raft is not unusual: a spacecraft somehow finds itself being drawn into a strange alternate reality/parallel universe. Except here space is somehow a breathable atmosphere and the universe in which the crew and ship have arrived is like a bizarre, funhouse diorama of our own. First, the ship has broken apart, mainly into three distinct segments. These distinct segments orbit a nebular core that creates a gravitational force nearly a billion times stronger than our own. Planets do not exist, as they would crumple immediately beneath their own gravity. Stars only fractions of the size of those in this universe have short lifespans, sometimes no more than one hundred years, at which point they collapse into iron cores that typically are no more than 30 meters in diameter. The cores are mined for their iron and minerals by the people of the Belt, a society of miners and workers living in shanty-like modules fastened together in whatever manner possible. Miners work on the cores’ surfaces under the weight of 5 times earth’s gravity. The work is brutal, and though the people of the belt provide so that the people on the Raft can themselves live, the workers reap little of the profits of their labors. They are starving as the belts crumble in orbits decaying toward the nebular core.
The Raft is where the ship’s technology has remained. The Rafters enjoy a higher standard of living and look down on all those figuratively and physically below them. Those dwelling in the community of the Raft are more highly educated and are gifted with more opportunities. Despite the seeming utopia in which the Rafters live, there is tension between the older and younger populations. This tension inevitably leads to a revolt on the Raft.
Through the novel, we follow Rees as he toils miserably as a belt miner. During an exchange of goods (which is facilitated by navigable trees that fly from Raft to the Belt), Rees stows away to the Raft. His innate intelligence and curiosity prevent him from being sent back to the belt. Instead, he is trained as a Scientist. It is during his stay on the Raft that Rees learns that the Ship, from which the Belt and Raft came to be, came from a universe vastly different from the one in which the people find themselves. He learns that the Raft and the Belt and the communities of the Boneys were all passengers/crew on board that ship. Over time, a once unified society has stratified into very distinct social classes.
We find the same kind of stratification in Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, where a generational starship, Vanguard, and its crew and passengers are on course to colonize a new star system. However, during the voyage a mutiny breaks out among the crew, killing most of the officers. The descendants, over time, forget the purpose of the voyage, and the vast ship, itself comprised of several floors or levels, develop into their own insular societies. As the years fade away, the passengers no longer remember that there is a universe beyond the walls of the ship. For them, the ship has become the universe. In an earlier post, I likened this forgotten knowledge to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The passengers see only what is directly in front of them and cannot fathom an alternate reality existing beyond the confines of the Vanguard. For them, there is nothing but the ship.
Rees’ journey in the Raft is much like the main character’s in another Heinlein novel, Citizen of the Galaxy. In that story, we follow Thorby, who begins his life as a slave. He is bought by the beggar, Baslim the Cripple, who treats the boy as a son and teaches him the ways of begging. When Baslim is killed, Thorby begins a journey that takes him from the cutthroat streets to escape in a ship whose captain promised Baslim to watch after Thorby in the event of Baslim’s death or arrest. The rest of the novel revolves around Thorby’s search for his parents, for where he came from, and this search takes him higher and higher up the galaxy’s social strata.
As was said earlier, in the Raft, the reader finds Rees an occupant and worker for the Belt. He is a miner. He is lowered to the extinguished star below, which is now nothing more than a heavy iron “kernel” approximately 30 yards in diameter. The gravity on this burnt-out core is the equivalent of 5 times earth’s gravity. The work is laborious and literally back-breaking. Much of the work is completed by “Moles,” which long ago had been small flying craft but had since been converted to their current use as automated, mechanical mining machines. Rees’ and his companions’ jobs are little more than making sure the moles function without incident.
Rees bristles at his place in life. He wants to know what exists beyond the Belt. The Raft is regarded as humanity’s nirvana, and Rees wants to know more about this nebular space in which this selection of humanity has found itself. Do they exist merely until the nebular core burns out and gravity pulls them all inward to be crushed beneath the incredible tidal forces of the inevitable black hole to follow?
Rees makes his daring escape to the Raft. Once there, he endears himself to one of the elder Scientists who takes him on as a protege. Rees learns more about the Raft and how it came to be where it was now. He learned of the Ship that had somehow flown through a wormhole that connected this space to his native universe beyond. As Rees rises in the ranks on the Raft, tensions there reach a breaking point, which leads to the rebellion across the communities of the nebula. Rees is confronted with joining this rebellion. When he refuses, his fall begins. He is returned to the Belt, where he is no longer welcomed but received as a traitor. In time, he finds himself cast down to the worldlet of the Boneys.
The Boneys are perceived as the lowest form of humanity within the nebula. They are scavengers of the vilest sort. However, their actions are in pursuit of survival by the only means left to them. On the Boneys’ hollow world (which is hardly any larger than the burnt-out star on which the miners of the Belt work), nothing is wasted. Nothing. Upon his arrival on the Boneys’ world, Rees is taken aback by the quality of the surface, which gives in to his weight. It has the characteristics of stiff leather. There is even hair that tangles around his ankles. The Boneys have nothing, so they must make do with what they can make with and from their own flesh and waste, skin and bone.
Though the Raft is the first novel in Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence, that race makes no appearance in the novel. Baxter writes with confidence and imagination, but the world he presents in his novel is so strange it is often hard to capture in the mind the vision he intends to convey. As with many hard science fiction novels, one really needs some background in astrophysics and a basic grasp of the mechanics of interstellar space. It’s helpful to have some experience with relativity and gravity, as well. Even still, because the setting of intergalactic space is so foreign to most readers, sci-fi writers run the risk of much of their world-building being lost on their readers. For me, this is my most significant criticism. I simply had difficulty in imagining accurately what Baxter described. What I envisioned became jumbled and was likely a very, very loose approximation of what the author intended. I was able, however, to let myself become invested in the very strange aspects of Baxter’s alternate universe. Again, with sci-fi, the reader needs to be open to the truly bizarre, as given the expanse of the universe (of a theoretical multiverse) how can we know with certainty what can and cannot exist even within our own galactic suburb let alone the vast emptiness beyond? This is the exciting aspect of science fiction. Virtually anything goes as long as it can be, at least in part, supported by known science. And the more the writer’s imagination is validated by science, the greater the wonder. With a deft writer guiding him or her, the reader is taken to the extremes of existence and the wildest possibilities of humanity’s final frontier.
The next installment in Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence is Timelike Infinity. Two chapters in and I find myself in more familiar territory. Perhaps the world in Raft might have been more easily palatable had the reader the opportunity to enter it and see it with the characters for the first time. Then again, that would have disrupted the in media res storytelling Baxter adopted. Who am I, though, to question the manner in which a writer wishes to tell his story?