What if we exponentially reduced the scale of the galaxy so that the sun was only 50 yards across, extinguished its raging burn so that only a solid metal lump remained, and set a chain of a few hundred dwellings to orbit around the cold sphere that remained? Imagining as such, you would have the opening of Stephen Baxter’s 1991 Raft. By its conclusion, however, Raft reveals itself as a highly original mix of science and fantasy that continues playing with the scale of the universe while telling an uplifting yet sobering tale of personal and societal evolution.
The title of the book comes from the remodeled spacecraft that hangs above the mini-ringworld orbiting the dead star. Exactly like a raft in space, this large disc of metal is home to a few thousand that depend on the metals the miners extract below, just as the miners depend on supplies from the raft above, for survival. A prime opportunity for class discussion, Baxter takes advantage, contrasting the poor working class conditions of the miners against the more civilized and technically advanced version of life on the raft. Gravity increasing to 3, 4, and even 5 gees the closer one gets to the dead star’s metal center, work in the mines, like industrial work on earth, is not always a picnic, and compared to life on the raft, it’s hell. Suffice to say, relations between the two locations are not always on the best of terms and provide a good portion of plot tension.
Though the physics are not always clear, base plot is motivated by the slow death of the nebula beyond. The atmosphere is breathable anywhere in the galaxy, but the raft and orbital nevertheless depend on the nebula’s light for sustenance. Catalyzing the need for action while facing this threat is the book’s main character, Rees. A young man who starts as a miner, his moral choices take him to amazing places as the story progresses — the canopies of floating trees, the belly of a space whale, and to live amongst one of the more grisly societies in sci-fi, the Boneys. Part adventure and part bildungsroman, a large portion of the story deals with Rees’ development into a responsible person and awareness of the burden he bears in saving the small community drifting through the dying nebula.
Raft is a balanced work by several accounts; Baxter should be applauded for keeping the scope of his story within workable limits. The handful of characters which take the main stage, while simplistic, are handled properly and never seem to overmatch the setting. Without the infinite billions hanging on the margins (as is so often depicted in sci-fi), the localized scale also has the effect of making the story more personal for the reader. Like scope, Baxter is also able to strike an even balance with the book’s tone. Hinting at Arthur C. Clarke in its setting, dependence on physics, and societal hope for better things, there is also a dark, gritty edge to the story reminiscent of Iain M. Banks or William Gibson. Life on the raft is not always easy, and the story’s climax does not have a fairytale ending for everybody.
In the end Raft is a provocative amalgam of sub-genres. The setting is sci-fi, the society onboard the raft is steampunkish, and there are many other aspects of the story which are nothing less than fantasy, making Raft an interesting mix of the three. Baxter’s style is capable and consistent throughout, the novel is highly readable, though the prose is far from lyrical. If anything hurts the book, it is length. Too short, many of the concepts deserved more description to bring life in the nebula into clearer understanding. That being said, Raft remains a strong work of science fantasy that can be enjoyed by young people and adults, alike. The similarities to Brian Aldiss’ work abound, so his fans should especially enjoy the work.
Raft is the first book in Baxter’s XEELEE series. The next book is Timelike Infinity.