Another Stephen Baxter alternate history and another retro review, this time from April 26, 2009.
Review: Anti-Ice, Stephen Baxter, 1993.
In the year 1720, a comet enters Earth orbit and remains there as the “Little Moon”. However, a chunk of the comet ends up in the Antarctic where it is found by Ross the polar explorer. It’s no ordinary chunk of cometary ice, it’s anti-ice. Rather like anti-matter, it reacts explosively with ordinary matter – but only above a certain temperature threshhold. Using its condensed power, the British Empire embarks on an age of vast technological innovation and world dominance.
Politically, though, things don’t immediately change. British political history certainly deviates from our experience with many 19th century reforms not undertaken and Manchester as the capital and not London. But Continental politics only begin to change after England uses an anti-ice weapon to end the siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War.
It is at Sebastopol the novel begins, its destruction recounted by the narrator’s brother. Then we jump to 1870, and the eve of the Franco-Prussian war. Our hero, self-described as a man of shallow character and shallow intellect, makes the acquaintance of Josiah Traveller, the engineering genius who has developed most of the anti-ice technologies. He also develops an infatuation for Francois, a French woman who is not only politically ardent but also unusually knowledgeable about anti-ice engineering.
The novel echoes Verne and Wells and nowhere more deliberately than a voyage to the moon. Five men — the narrator, Traveller, his butler, an English journalist, and a saboteur – inhabit a small spaceship. But the narrator discovers more than the depth of Traveller’s ingenuity and life on the moon. He undergoes a political awakening about the new order being shaped back on Earth and the true nature of his love Francois.
This is a fun work of steampunk, a nice homage to Verne and Wells. As long as you don’t mind your alternate histories built on more outre premises, Baxter presents an interesting divergence of European history. And, though it’s relatively brief at the end, he makes a serious point about the limitations of even well-intentioned imperialism.